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Does Your Culture Support Innovation?

There’s a lot of people talking about innovation these days, myself included.

The good news is that business leaders seem to be sitting up and taking notice of this important subject. The bad news is that once a topic becomes popular in the media, people have a tendency to see it as the next “management flavor of the month.” In other words, they perceive it as a quick fix solution rather than a long-term change in the way they do business.

Remember a few decades ago when everyone jumped on the continuous improvement bandwagon? Very quickly, companies of all shapes and sizes began implementing six sigma, lean manufacturing, and other types of process improvement programs. Many had no clue what they were doing or worked hard without a link to overall strategy and success. And most had very unrealistic timelines and expectations for the results they hoped to achieve.

Not surprisingly, the continuous improvement movement failed to produce any overnight successes. Companies that approached continuous improvement as a quick fix soon discovered the error of their ways, usually ending up worse off than before they started. Those that invested the time and effort in making continuous improvement a way of life are still reaping the dividends.

The same thing needs to happen with innovation. To succeed, it needs to become an integral part of how you do business. Innovation requires ways of thinking that must underlie all the process, systems, and management behaviors in an organization. Creating ongoing innovation in an organization needs to be thought of as a long-term process, especially if you are used to reacting to change rather than creating it. Most of all, innovation requires an organizational culture that nourishes and supports it as a way of life rather than as a short-term band-aid for current business problems.

To create a culture that encourages rather than inhibits innovation:

Create a Powerful Context

The strategic planning process starts with defining what winning looks like for your organization. Creating a culture that supports innovation begins the same way. Start by explaining why innovation is important and how it will help your organization win. Paint a picture of what your organization will look like when innovation becomes a way of life and how it will benefit all your key stakeholders. Always address the “why” before moving on to the “what” and the “how.”

Help People Learn to Think Differently

Most of us don’t really know how to pause to challenge our own assumptions, change perspectives, or even how to consider different angles. We are not used to slowing down just a little to consider options, balance the big picture with the details, or seek new data. As adult humans, we are not naturally prone to constantly test and update our mental models about our world, our customers, our peers, and our organization. Most of us need tools and support to learn these critical new skills and abilities. Make sure you set your organization up for success by providing the necessary support in the form of learning sessions, tools, and techniques to help people think differently.

Link Individual Effort to the Big Picture

Not only do employees need to understand why innovation is critical to the organization, they must also understand how the work they do fits into the overall effort. After giving employees the big picture, tell them how and where they fit in. Ask for their input on how to improve products, processes and workflow, and let them know they will have some degree of autonomy in how they perform their jobs. In addition, stress the importance of open communication up and down the management chain as well as across teams, departments, and work units.

Build and Encourage Diversity

One of the quickest ways to kill innovation is to surround yourself with people who think the same way, make decisions the same way, and tend to avoid conflict. Ask yourself questions like: Do we develop teams with diverse skills and analytical styles? Do we accommodate all styles in meetings and conversation, or do we favor one style over the others? As an organization, do we value contention, debate, and tension or do we constantly rush to consensus? Conversely, do we get stuck in analysis paralysis and avoid making decisions for fear of failure?

Use Supportive Language and Behaviors

Many organizations have built-in language patterns and behaviors that do not support innovation. Seemingly innocuous phrases like “Don’t bother, we’ve already tried that” or, “Nice idea, but management will never go for it” can instantly shoot down any good ideas that may arise. Instead, use language that encourages employees to contribute ideas and stay open to new possibilities. Do not tolerate gossiping, politicking or ridiculing new ideas, no matter how far-fetched. If employees don’t feel safe voicing their ideas and opinions, innovation will never happen.

Acknowledge and Reward Innovation

It’s one of the oldest axioms of human nature – people repeat behaviors they get rewarded for. Does leadership in your organization give employees continual feedback on the results of their efforts? Do you privately acknowledge the efforts of individuals? Do you recognize them publicly? Do you continually communicate your commitment to innovation at all levels of the organization? Most important, do you demonstrate that commitment by your actions and behaviors as well as the words you say?

Talking about innovation is good. Putting it to work in your organization is even better. For best results, link innovation to your strategy and think of creating ongoing innovation as a long-term process rather than a short-term goal. And make sure your culture provides the necessary context for it to thrive.

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