Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Creating an innotropic company

 I grew up on a farm, so to some extent it's no surprise that I have always been fascinated by plants.  When I hike in the woods, or work in my garden, I can see how the trees, flowers and other plants position themselves for the sun.  Even in the densest forest, where you would think the undergrowth has no chance of direct sunlight, you will find plants that find small patches of sunlight.

Plants are heliotropic, that is, they seek the sun.  If you observe many flowers, you will see that the flowers will literally follow the sun throughout the day, seeking to absorb as much of the sun as possible.  In other settings, flowers and plants that are located in unfavorable locations will grow at strange angles in order to reach sunlight.  For most plants, direct sunlight is vital to the production of the nutrients the plant needs to survive, and so the plants will do what they can to reach the sun.

This is not a post about biomimicry

In years past, there have been (and may still be) speakers and writers who connected the innovation of plants and animals to ideas about how companies should innovate.  Using lessons from nature, these writers and speakers would talk about learning from nature, or even mimicking what nature does when it innovates.  This is not a post about innovating the way nature does.

Instead, this is a post about creating a yearning or need for innovation in a business, the way a plant needs sunlight to grow and to thrive.  Learning methods or pathways to more and better innovation outcomes is something most companies can do, but first, or at least in parallel, they need to learn to want and need innovation.

Becoming innotropic

With innotropic I think I may be creating a new word, at least in the use that I intend.  When I write about innotropic, or innotropism, I mean that companies in their corporate heads and hearts must learn to desire and "need" innovation in the way that plants need the sun.  We should consider how that could happen and why it is not the case for most corporations today.

While I am using more human terms for a business (heads and hearts) what I mean is that within the corporate strategy, intent and purpose, as well as the leadership (heads), there must be a desire for innovation, and within the corporate culture and operating system (hearts), there must be a desire for innovation.  Too often the culture overwhelms whatever the heads may want to do.

Why innovation is not as desired as stability

Don't misunderstand me here.  Every company and every management team wants an occasional innovation.  What management team doesn't want the next iPhone in their segment or industry?  But their desires are for bluebirds that happen spontaneously, rather than for consistent, continuous innovation.  There are a host of reasons for the lack of continuous innovation focus, most of them related to how executives and companies are measured and rewarded, and the risk factors associated with innovating and failing to achieve the next iPhone.

Rather, most companies are built to be efficiency engines, keeping a constant, steady state of efficient operations and predictable outcomes.  Which, by the way, is not a bad thing and is easily rewarded on Wall Street.  It is also easier to manage, less risky and far more predictable.  Over the years, this focus on efficiency and predictability has taught people, management and especially the corporate culture to seek stability and sustainability.  So one could argue that most firms are sustainotropic, constantly seeking to maintain a reasonable equilibrium and predictable operations.

How to create an innotropic company

If you'd seek to make a company more innotropic, how might you do that?  How can you create an organization that constantly seeks innovation the way a plant seeks the sun?  It's possible, but not easy.

The first thing to do is to put a change program in place, that focuses on defining the strategy for innovation and ensuring everyone understands the strategy and can get behind the strategy, or get off the bus.  The second thing to do is to examine the things that motivate and reward people, usually compensation, recognition and rewards.  Look at how people are compensated and rewarded for their work, actions and outcomes.  Do these things support innovation or stability?

Third, focus on the behaviors, stories, informal power structures and other "hard" and "soft" features of your culture, which will formally and informally direct how people think and act.  When the culture encourages people to seek innovation, and the reward structure supports innovation, and the executive team and its strategy plans for innovation, the company will become more innotropic.

How to kill innotropism

We cannot fail to mention here that while difficult to create, innotropism is relatively easy to kill.  Unlike plants, which require the sun to produce nutrients, companies don't need innovation in the short run.  Therefore, the conditions for innovation must be constantly supported, and the investments and development models and executive support for innovation must be unwavering.  The easiest way to kill innotropism, or innovation generally, is to build up an innovation task force and then pay lip service to the ideas that are generated, or to pull key people from the program into another task.  Any signal that a company is wavering or unserious about its focus on innotropism will be enough to kill it.

Aren't we really talking about culture

After all of this talk about innotropism, by now you've realized that what I am really talking about is culture.  If you've arrived at that conclusion, you are correct.  Good innovators have cultures that support and sustain innovation.  But in this post, and in your thinking, I wanted to take it further.  What would happen if the company was organized, motivated and incentivized to constantly seek innovation?

What would that company look like, act like, and focus on?  What would be required for a company to perform in that way?  I think at the most basic level, the need for innovation, for growth, for creating really interesting and valuable products, services and business models, and recognizing that they have a limited lifespan and must be constantly replaced, is the kernal of the operating system of an innotropic company, and I hope soon we'll see more companies that are formed and grow with this intent in mind.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:22 AM


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