How To Create A Culture of Innovation

An innovative culture begins with accepting that the world really has changed and being open to more changes to come.

There are many pieces to the innovation puzzle, and they will come together differently for each organization.

How one goes about building an innovative organization ought to be unique. But for every organization, it starts with the right mindset--the unexpected must be expected.

Who would have thought that cell phones would become cameras and music players? Who would have thought that ordinary, non-techie people would socially connect with the global audience with their personal devices?

This mindset must begin at the top of the organization and permeate every level. And most importantly, it includes the intangibles of culture: the beliefs, expectations, and sense of purpose of those in the organization.

Creative thinking and collaboration can be encouraged and rewarded, or in many formal and subtle ways discouraged. It’s the leader’s job to get it right.

Here’s what people might be thinking in a non-innovative environment:

“Our company is too big to waste time on small ideas.”
“We want new ideas, but I’m paid to make my numbers on existing business.”
“I can’t remember manufacturing and marketing ever talking about anything.”
“We’re doing fine; let’s let our existing line peak before we try something new.”
“People are going to get cynical about all these change initiatives.”

Of all the changes Lou Gerstner found necessary when he became CEO at IBM, culture was the hardest. He would have preferred to stay away from it and stick with the strategy, analysis, and measurement style he had been successful with before.

But in Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance he writes:

“I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game--it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value. Vision, strategy, marketing, financial management--any management system, in fact--can set you on the right path and carry you for a while. But no enterprise--whether in business, government, education, health care, or any area of human endeavor--will succeed over the long haul if those elements aren’t part of its DNA.”

Culture is not one of those soft matters to be dealt with when the real business is done. Culture is a complement to the formal, established rules of doing business. An understanding of and commitment to the organization’s mission will guide employees when confronted by the unexpected for which no rules exist.

It is all too easy for organizations to fall into the analysis trap and focus on left-brain skills like process, measurement, and execution. Sustained innovation enterprises embrace right-brained skills: creativity, imagination, analogy, and empathy. Unlike most organizations that separate these individuals into silos (such as marketing versus engineering), innovative enterprises build teams that morph as new processes and ideas unfold. This results in the creation of focus during ideation and analytical emphasis as market growth accelerates.

How often in corporations and other organizations do existing fiefdoms stifle any attempt to do something differently?

When studied carefully, innovative organizations are consistently able to do the following:

Listen

Members of an organization’s internal and external community often have tremendous insights and ideas that lead to new innovations.

Stay open

Ideas don’t always come from experts. Sometimes the greatest innovations come from novices and backroom tinkers. Open-minded organizations often convert off-the-wall ideas into marketable products.

Collaborate

No organization holds all the cards in developing new innovation. Collaboration with outside groups--complementary corporations, universities, government agencies, and think tanks--often brings new perspectives and ideas to the innovation process.

Go flat

A flat management structure doesn’t have the long approval processes and disjointed lines of communications that impede innovation. Organizations that can’t go flat in management can achieve the same results by empowering workers to act independently.

Embrace failure

Many of the greatest innovations’ leapfrogs were unintended results and, oftentimes, created by accident. Breakthroughs such as the discovery of penicillin or the power of microwaves were the result of accidents.

An innovative culture begins with the organizational attitude of accepting that the world really has changed. It’s about cultivating a mindset to learn to see the world in new ways.

[Image: Flickr user Jameel Winter]

Add New Comment

3 Comments