You can't impose a culture of innovation
How does a corporate culture become innovative?
So here's the interesting question: is innovation emergent, constructed, coerced or otherwise imposed on an organizational culture? Clearly, almost every firm was "innovative" at one time, when it was a scrappy newcomer and had to out-innovate the competition to win. Over time, however, once a customer base was locked in and overheads and administration demanded more careful husbandry of resources and risks, many firms settled for a culture of productivity and efficiency, which slowly edged out innovation, until innovation seems like a strange interloper rather than a familiar friend.
If your organization has achieved ultimate efficiency and is now grasping for innovation, how does it become more innovative? More importantly, can you "create" a culture of innovation in an organization where the culture is conservative, risk averse and focused on predictability and stability? It's not very easy, and it certainly isn't a quick transition. There are three methods you could attempt:
- Impose innovation on an existing culture of efficiency. Most organizations, if they give culture a second thought, will acknowledge the importance of innovation culture but will simply try to impose a "culture of innovation" on top of an existing culture of efficiency. This is, like Keats said, writing your name in water. You cannot create a "culture" on top of another more powerful culture. A house divided will not stand. The prevailing, original culture of efficiency will win, and you'll be reduced to sporadic, discrete innovation activities in which you constantly commit the same mistakes and face the same hurdles and barriers.
- Create a "skunkworks" that isolates innovation from the prevailing efficiency culture. Many organizations that are smart enough to understand the investment in culture and the effort to change it will attempt this approach. They'll separate small teams of innovators and place them in a cultural bubble, isolated from the prevailing culture, like an experiment in a Petri dish. In that isolated environment ideas can thrive, not bound by existing culture. But when the ideas make the transition from Petri dish back into the product or service development stream, they are frequently rejected by corporate culture anti-bodies. Isolation accelerates innovation but it doesn't increase acceptance.
- Invest in long term change. If you want to sustain innovation and increase your odds of success, you'll understand the ancient saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Changing a culture isn't easy and it certainly isn't quick. There are several factors you can influence that will make the change more acceptable and more fluid:
- Focus on evaluation, compensation and rewards. If people are evaluated on the time they spend innovating, and that evaluation leads to increased compensation and job progression, some people are more likely to spend more time doing innovation work.
- Remove hazards and uncertainty. Focus on what people attempt, rather than what they achieve, when they innovate. Failures are going to happen, and the learning should be collected and recognized. Public beheading is rarely an inducement for more innovation.
- Define a method that people can use, learn and become experts in. Rather than every man for himself, using any tool or framework, define and reinforce a small set of tools and workflow so that people can increase their knowledge and expertise.
- Training. Train them on the process, tools and workflow defined above. Nuff said.
- Identify your best innovators and recruit more of them, both new graduates and experienced hires. Infect the organization with optimism, purpose and excitement. Inoculate it from pessimism and "the way we do it here".
And, by the way, stop talking about a culture of innovation. Everyone knows you need it, but words without actions just creates cynicism. Actions like those defined in item 3 above will speak with far more command, and will gain far more attention, than constantly talking about the need for an innovation culture. Further, when you are talking about a culture of innovation, the existing culture and its keepers feel under attack. What's wrong, they ask, with our existing culture? It's served us well so far. Create change by making actual change, rather than talking about change. Talking about change just raises the stakes and increases the effort.