Building a culture of innovation is the first step in being innovative. If you get the environment right, a culture of innovation will easily fall into place.
With promising economic statistics in the US, some organizations are hiring again and manufacturing and retail sales are starting to turn around. Yet management remains cautious about spending and more and more are thinking about how to innovate in order to provide customers with products and services that are recession-proof.

They are asking:

  • How do we innovate?
  • How much should we spend on innovation?
  • How much time should we devote to innovation?

But these are not the right questions. Rather, management should be asking, “How do we re-shape the culture in our organization so that innovation is just part of what we do?”
If you get the environment right, a culture of innovation will easily fall into place and the business side of your operations will be that much easier. Many organizations spend time on strategic planning and business planning but rarely spend time on building their culture, the development of values and principles and the type of reporting relationships that will support the new culture. These are requirements to get the innovation engine started.

Organizations often struggle with the on-going trade-off debate between growth and earnings, short and long-term goals, etc. They spend too much time discussing how to cut costs in order to meet monthly revenue targets and too little time talking about the longer-term opportunities and how the short-term decisions are likely to impact these. By the time leaders start to realize that their growth has been stifled by their need to meet these short-term objectives, innovation will have already been killed. Short-term thinking is perhaps one of the biggest pot holes to fill.

There is no doubt that being privately held certainly makes it easier. You’ll be less prone to short-term thinking and profits, etc. demanded by shareholders and Boards that impede innovation and stifle the culture needed to foster it. However, innovation is not about private or public, retail or manufacturing, technology or science. It is about all of these and not specific to any type of industry.

“A company’s ability to innovate is rapidly becoming the primary source of competitive success.”
– Christopher A. Bartlett

Establish Your Values and Principles

By Many organizations have clearly articulated values and principles. They sit on posters and on employee’s desks. But how do these organizations know that these are the “right” values and principles? How do they know whether or not their leaders and staff act and behave in a manner which embodies these values and principles? How do they know if these are contributing to or preventing the fostering of a culture of innovation?
The first step for organizations is to start their innovation engine. Create or re-establish your values and principles. Then develop behavioural statements which identify the actions and disciplines everyone will demonstrate to show their on-going understanding and embodiment of these values and principles. With this in place it is easy to identify whether or not everyone’s communications, reactions, actions, etc. are in keeping with or contrary to the organization’s values and principles. The pot holes will be more apparent because these remove the “subject to interpretation” of each value and principle.

Eliminate Policy Manuals

These are the source of your greatest pot holes. People hide behind policies as a source of false protection. Everyone interprets the same policy differently. At times they’ll suggest that their interpretation is the correct one as this means the policy will protect them but harm others. Policies can create disharmony in the organization. If everyone understanding and interpretation of each policy were exactly the same, then there’d be no need for lawyers to interpret for us.
Use the values and principles to identify how the organization will operate, the relationship between individuals, levels, locations, etc. These should identify how communication will occur, how new employees will be treated and how everyone will work together. Diagnostic tools can be used to identify gaps in how everyone is operating and working together. Culture is a journey. You cannot cover up all of the pot holes in a matter of just months.

Identify and Define a Culture of Innovation

Everyone at all levels must be engaged in the process of identifying their definition of a culture of innovation, what makes it an innovation culture, what is needed to create it and what pot holes must be filled in order to create the engine to drive innovations.
Create teams to delve deeply into these questions. Give them the opportunity to present the possibilities to the entire organization through town hall meetings, video-conferencing, etc. Then ensure these teams get feedback from everyone so that they can go back to change, improve and refine their definitions and descriptions.

Create Innovation Processes

Innovation doesn’t just happen. It must be everyone’s responsibility. It has to be included as a value for the organization. There has to be no constraints. There are so many models of great organizations that reached this level yet continue to evolve. Think of W.L. Gore, Google, Honda, and Apple to name a few.
Everyone needs to know how to work in a diverse team, accept conflicts as mere differences of opinion, how to capture innovations, generate alternatives, research possibilities and create the actions needed to bring them to reality. It doesn’t just happen. It is a process.

Fill the pot holes

“Anyone in a large organization who thinks major change is impossible should probably get out.”
– John P. Kotter
If staff don’t feel valued for what they bring to the organization, if they aren’t encouraged to collaborate and if they don’t feel there is a safe environment to share their knowledge then there’ll be no innovations. They’ll fall into the pot holes.

Michael Stanleigh

Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP, CSM is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects. He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping them to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management. Michael’s experience spans public and private sector organizations in over 20 different countries. He also delivers presentations to businesses and conferences throughout the world. In addition to his consulting practice and global speaking he has been featured and published in over 500 different magazines and industry publications. For more information about this article you may contact Michael Stanleigh at mstanleigh@bia.ca