Friday, March 23, 2018

Changing corporate culture to encourage more innovation

I've written and spoken about the importance of corporate culture and its impact on innovation over the last 15 years or so.  Heck, one of the underlying issues I address in my book Relentless Innovation (shameless plug) is the overwhelming challenge that corporate culture presents to an innovation team.  I've argued that corporate culture, more than any other issue, is the biggest barrier to sustained innovation.

I've just found a great article on the subject of corporate culture, published recently in the Harvard Business Review.  This is one of the best articles I've read recently about corporate culture, and while the article barely touches on innovation, the points it makes about corporate culture and employee motivation are important.

Links between culture and motivation

At the heart of the article is the question of what impact corporate culture has on employee motivation.  I've always used a simple definition of corporate culture  - it's how things get done in a company, regardless of the org structure or process maps.  It's the formal and informal decision making, corporate history and perspective, formal and informal rewards, recognition systems and what the entity encourages or discourages.

The authors of the paper draw a direct link between what people do, and what motivates them, and corporate culture.  They go so far as to suggest six reasons why people work:  play, purpose, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia.  The first three are positive forces that encourage people to do what they enjoy.  The last three are negative forces that merely sustain day to day activity.

Where does innovation fit in?

If you think about how these factors influence innovation, it becomes obvious how much the positive aspects of why people work influence innovation.  The first and most important aspect is "play".  Michael Schrage wrote a book about innovation called Serious Play.  Innovation is a playful, explorative, experimentative activity at its best.  If people feel called to innovate, and view it as a fun, exciting activity, they are far more likely to be fully engaged.  In fact, if it is play, they are likely to enter what Csikszentmihalyi called 'flow'.  Flow is the experience of doing something so challenging and engaging that you lose track of time.

The second factor the authors describe is purpose.  Doing something that aligns to a key purpose is also very attractive and engaging.  People who are interested in taking risks, creating new things, exploring new opportunities find their purpose in this work.  People who don't have this purpose or goal reject much of the work, which is why so much innovation feels so much like a repeat of existing processes or products.  Helping people align to their internal goals or purpose might also sound like intrinsic motivation, and we know the best innovators are often intrinsically motivated.

Contrast intrinsic motivation with extrinsic motivation, which could align to economic pressure (a negative characteristic).  Too much overt payment for innovation can lead to the wrong incentives.

Innovation Effectiveness is based on your culture

If your business is focused on efficiency and effectiveness, consistency and a lack of risk taking and variability, then that's what your culture reinforces.  Imagine, then, trying to introduce a project or activity that has all of these aspects - variability, risk, uncertainty and so on.  Is it any wonder that the culture reacts by first ignoring, then resisting, these activities?

How do we make our cultures more receptive to innovation?  By accepting that innovation should be like "play", that it should align to an individual's purpose, and that it builds people's potential.  When innovation is risky or uncertain, or people are motivated purely by financial incentives, or worse simply can't be bothered (the authors' characteristic of inertia), then the culture wins.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:59 AM 0 comments

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Innovation is often the triumph of hope over experience

Oscar Wilde, perhaps one of the most acerbic and humorous writers of the 19th century, once commented that a second marriage after a failed first marriage was the "triumph of hope over experience".  His point was that people continued to pursue marriage, even in the face of bitter previous failure.  Now Wilde was a bachelor, and also unable to marry in his time, since he was gay, and may have had a bit of snark in his writings, but his point remains.  People who do the same things over and over again, expecting different results, could be equated to Einstein's theory that doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

Does this make innovators, especially committed corporate innovators, insane or simply like a cuckolded spouse seeking out a new relationship?  What kind of person does it take to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune and continue in their belief that innovation is good for their companies and good for customers?  Sorry, I couldn't resist another literary reference.

Not Insane, Not Defeated Just Committed

What I'd like to say about most corporate innovators who try and try again, in the face of overwhelming odds, little executive commitment, few resources and many cultural barriers is that they are doing important work.  The handful who constantly attempt to conduct new innovation experiments, who explore and experiment to discover new technologies or needs, and bring new ideas to bear, aren't crazy, they are rarely defeated and very committed.

You've heard by now that failure is required as a component of innovation.  You've heard that in many TED talks and YouTube videos.  You've heard it from your executive team.  You know it's probably true.  It's difficult to achieve perfection in the activities you undertake every day, using well-known tools and proven processes.  How much more difficult will it be to succeed at generating new ideas for unknown customers solving currently unmet needs?

Hope and Experience

Here's where good corporate innovators make a subtle shift.  It's not "hope over experience", it is hope AND experience. That is, good innovation is based on previous experience, both with successful innovation and with failure.  To return to Oscar Wilde, "experience is the name we give our mistakes".  Experience is the culmination of our successes and failures and the learning we achieved along the way.  Good innovators are always optimistic - full of hope, and mix that hope with the experience they've gained along the way.

Most people who attempt to do innovation in almost any setting are neither hopeful nor experienced.  Most expect that the innovation work will be pointless, and haven't succeeded or failed at innovation previously, so they have little hope and no experience.  We must change this by allowing people to try out small experiments - gaining experience - and by changing corporate culture and communications, to give people more confidence and more purpose, which will lead to more hope.  Until people have more hope AND more experience, it's difficult to sustain any innovation activity.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:41 AM 0 comments

Monday, March 05, 2018

You cannot survive doing more of the same

It seems so funny, looking back on a meeting I attended about 20 years ago.  At that meeting a good friend was presenting a new book, entitled Who Moved My Cheese?  He was recommending this book to all of us in the leadership team of a mid-sized ERP consulting firm.  Of course most of us read it and thought - hmm - that's interesting.  We need to get better at accepting change, instead of seeking to sustain the status quo.

You don't need to worry any more about someone moving your cheese.  If you are still moving in the slow, certain ways of most businesses, your cheese was consumed by another firm a long time ago, and shortly you'll notice that the cheese supply seems very limited.  In fact you'll probably discover that the entire cheese supply has been cornered and many of your competitors have shifted their diets to cheese flavored tofu or something else.  It's no longer a matter of IF your cheese will get moved, it's not even a question of WHEN your cheese will move.  The real question is:  can you move as quickly as your cheese is moving - or better yet anticipate where it is going to get there first?

Your survival depends on your ability to change

In the archeological record we can see how animals evolved, changing as threats or conditions changed.  We can even see this in the human record.  These changes took millennia to unfold, and slowly but surely plants, animals and people evolved as well.

Today, the pace of change is accelerating and it is faster than ever.  Perhaps not in how we humans evolve - but definitely in terms of how businesses and technologies evolve.  In the not so distant past, businesses prided themselves and their products on being "build to last".  Today, we need to think more about "built to change", more agile, more nimble and more creative than in the past.

Innosight has completed and published some nice research which illustrates the accelerating pace of change, looking at the life span of major corporations on the S&P 500 list.  The average lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 is down to less than 12 years.  

I think - I hope - that you'll agree that in order to remain relevant, individuals and companies must adapt to new situations and new conditions.  We must change in order to stay relevant.

What is innovation but directed change?

Innovation - finding new ideas, spotting new opportunities - is simply proactive change.  It is something that you engage in proactively, rather than waiting for others to discover new needs or markets and then attempting to copy.  I think that many of the concerns or fears about innovation closely mirror concerns about change, because both seem unfamiliar, require individuals to leave behind trusted frameworks and approaches, and both require exploration of something new, that may or may not have value.

The fact that most companies aren't good at change, and equally aren't that great at innovation, shouldn't come as a surprise.  Innovation is change, and most organizations don't do change well.  Instead of innovation, most prefer to improve effectiveness and efficiency of what they are already doing, doubling down rather than creating something new.  Until organizations are willing to recognize the need for faster, more rapid and more continuous change, they won't have the chops to do really good innovation.  Most of the real barriers to innovation are change-based and culture-based, meaning that until you can change quickly and successfully, you'll have a difficult time innovating.  And if you can't innovate, you will perish.

What to do?

Most of us live and work in organizations that were 'built to last" when what we need are agile, nimble, change-oriented, proactive cultures.  If you want or need to innovate, focus on the factors of your culture that stymie change, that create FUD about new work or experiences, that reward reinforcing past behavior over taking risks and discovering something new.

Innovation success is based on corporate cultures that welcome and encourage change, insight, discovery, experimentation and speed.  If your cultures aren't aligned to these characteristics, you'll need to focus on culture change in order to innovate continuously and successfully.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:19 AM 0 comments