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Organisational Culture for Innovation – Part 2

I am still on the topic of creating a nurturing culture for innovation.  In the previous article I laid the table with the argument that an organisation has to drive the “run the business” activities AND the “change the business activities”. Change in the sense of change for the better – for the sake of surviving and beating the competition.  Established organisation are by definition designed to drive efficiencies and does not take disruption to the status quo well, and a significant part of establishing the right culture is acknowledging this fact and creating the climate, systems, processes and behaviours that can deal with these conflicting objectives.  In essence, this means that leaders have to figure out how to manage two distinct operating systems: one that minimizes mistakes and maximizes productivity in today’s business; versus one that encourages experimentation and maximizes learning in tomorrow’s business.
A culture of trust
In an efficiency-driven, operationally-minded world, organisations often try to eliminate as many potential business risks as possible. But if you want to innovate, risks are inevitable. Risks take a certain level of trust because if people get penalized for their failure, they are going to quickly move towards higher and “safer” ground.  
Innovative cultures are set-up to cultivate engagement and enthusiasm. Your company culture should challenge people to take risks within a safe environment. You should be finding ways to foster employee’s continual education and independent thinking and you should always drive fear out of the workplace. Fear is “Public Enemy #1” of an innovative culture.
In order for innovation to flourish in your organisation, a culture of trust and openness must be established. Not just lip service to these values, but it needs to be reflected in compensation structures, the ways in which mistakes are handled and how openly ideas are shared.  So how is trust established?  Trust is built or destroyed by what we do, so ask yourself these questions: How are mistakes treated? How much experimenting do we personally model and encourage in others?
Who gets rewarded and recognized for what behaviour? What management support systems and processes are in place? How much and what type of skills are developed and for whom? What information is shared, by whom and with whom? Do we keep our promises? Do we truly live according to our values? How clear and consistent are our goals and priorities?
These are just some of the trust issues. But as we contemplate our answers to these questions, the most important question of all is how do we know? We need to ask those people whose trust we need to build how they would answer these questions. To get their truthful responses and lay the foundation for trust building let them answer anonymously.
I had a discussion with a high-profile leader of a large organisation in Namibia the other day, and I like the way he stated his take on this matter: “calculated toleration for risk and failure”.  So it is not about blindly taking risks and jumping in without testing the water first, it is acknowledging that there are risks and how these risks will be dealt with or mitigated; and failing, but taking the lessons from the failure and doing it better with the next attempt.

Next Time
I hope my point has come across that there is a direct and strong relationship between organisation trust and innovation. I have dedicated a lot of articles to the more “high-level” issues regarding innovation, i.e. strategy, culture, maturity, etc. So next time, I want to focus on one of the practical issues – and probably one of the most fun parts – of innovation, namely generating ideas.  Ideation is where it all starts and every organisation wants the “big breakthrough” ideas, but guess what, it does not drop out of the sky with a light bulb switching on, you have to work at it and there are ways to get better at developing great ideas. I conclude with a quote from Edward de Bono: “As competition intensifies, the need for creative thinking increases. It is no longer enough to do the same thing better . . . no longer enough to be efficient and solve problems”.
Fermin, J. 2014. Company Culture: A driving force for innovation. Online:

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