Organisational Culture for Innovation
I’ve dedicated the last two articles to the topic of how to incentivize innovative behaviour in organisations, a matter which deserves proper thinking through before you engage employees for innovation. I want to focus the following two articles on a topic that is the most crucial one for innovation, namely the organisation culture. I always think that this topic has now been discussed way beyond excessiveness, but every time I engage with an organisation that wants to improve their innovation capability, the evidence is there that you can have a fancy system, rock solid processes and very clever people, but if not supported by the right culture, it’s all in vain.
This is one of the topics that receives the most attention in the innovation literature, commercial and academic, trust me, I’ve been studying innovation and reading up on it for many years now. Instead of going the usual route of first looking at what research tells us, I want to shoot from the hip and share my own thoughts on establishing a “nurturing” culture for innovation.
Of all the information I have read on this topic, the one thing that stood out regarding an established organisation, is that its main purpose is to drive efficiencies and follow the proven recipe. That is probably the single biggest reason why it is so difficult to bring about changes in the organisation. In terms of changes, here I am talking about taking risks, trying something new, failing, and changing the status quo. Human beings (well most of them anyway…) like predictability and dislike (or fear…) the unknown. It is not wrong to have this approach and a business certainly has to preserve the “run the business” activities to stay in business and make money. The challenge however, is that market conditions, customer preferences, the economy, technology and the competition keep on changing and evolving, mainly because there are people who actually desire to do things better, faster and simpler. So what worked today might not work tomorrow anymore and yes, you have to do the basics better, and this is also referred to sometimes as continuous improvement (I view continuous improvement also as innovation, even though some academics differ from me on this point), but you also have to keep an eye on the horizon and adapt to the ever changing environment. If the human race did not innovate, we would still be living in caves and use rocks as tools.
How does this relate to innovation culture? Innovation is about change, but not change for the sake of change, change for the better – for the sake of surviving and beating the competition. So, in terms of getting out of this mind-set of change is detrimental for the “run the business” activities, leaders and executives must recognize the fact that an organisations need to give attention to both “run the business” and “change the business” activities, and both can – and must – co-exist in the same environment. This is the foundation of addressing the issue of “we are too busy to work, we don’t have time to innovate”.
One of the first things I always advise organisations that want to grow innovation, is to allow their employees to allocate 10% of their paid time to innovation-related activities (generating ideas, evaluating ideas, working on innovation projects, building prototypes, learning and teaching innovation, etc.) and also include it in their performance agreements, because people do what they are paid to do. Once I have dropped this bomb, expressions of astonishment usually follows and then, based on who actually commit to doing it, I can quickly determine if there is a real commitment to innovation, or if it is just another “flavour of the month” exercise again.’
This is a topic that cannot be addressed in only one article, so now that I have set the table why a culture of change is imperative for innovation. Next time I will focus on some practical steps that leaders can take to change and grow the culture to nurture innovation. I conclude with a quote from Greg Harris: “Engaging the hearts, minds, and hands of talent is the most sustainable source of competitive advantage”.