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Get Real About a “Culture of Innovation”

If your company hasn’t already jumped on the Culture of Innovation bandwagon, you can count on it coming to a theater near you very soon. In the parlance of the entertainment and pharmaceutical industries, everyone is looking for a Blockbuster; that next great idea which translates into great big piles of cash. Industry leader, cool product, stock price bump, new revenue stream equals happy shareholders, huge CEO bonuses and employee merit increases after too many years without one.

Please! Let’s get real. The number of times that this actually happens in any sector is so limited yet the time, money, effort and attention that is taken up in many companies today is enormous. It seems that every new client call I receive is about Creating a Culture of Innovation. So why is this the current trend and what does success look like?

Here are my two cents:

  • Culture change for any reason is a bitch and takes a very long time. Culture is about human behavior and, as I have written on many occasions, we are creatures of habit who don’t like to change. If an executive team wants to drive a culture of innovation they must sign up for 18-24 months of very focused leadership. The minute they take their eyes off the ball, things will revert to the same old same old. So if you want to shift to greater innovation, then executives need to make it a top priority in their daily lives. In all my years of doing this type of work I’ll tell you that I’ve seen this level of commitment about five times. So good luck.
  • Does anyone know what innovation actually means or looks like anymore? Creative ideas, breakthrough moments, step level changes, outside the box, yadda, yadda, yadda. Okay, there is merit in those notions but I am not convinced that the finance person in accounts receivable knows what that means for her. Or the salesperson working within certain parameters. Or all the other people in an organization that must follow clear, quality, repeatable, software driven disciplines that keep the trains running and in compliance. What are they supposed to do to participate in this Innovation Culture? When CEOs are selling these programs to the staff they include everyone because they see this as a corporate wide initiative. But this is misguided. Not every function or person ought to be creative so what does it mean to be innovative to 3/4 of the staff? Sure the marketing or R&D people may know what that means but they are just a slice of the whole.
  • I believe that innovation is the current trend because of the speed of change and the drive towards entrepreneurial behaviors in more mature companies. Start ups, internet based enterprises, global competition, short attention span consumers and rapid obsolescence make leaders quake in their boots. I am with them. “Culture of Innovation” is today’s hoped-for silver bullet. There is a huge gap between that hope and reality. Rather than tackling something as unruly as an organization wide culture shift, energy is better spent on efficient processes, superior execution, streamlined systems and more effective management. Get everyone focused on making daily work simpler and then there is head space and desire to invent.
  • Success needs to be defined in less grandiose terms. If a blockbuster or a huge increase in profits is how innovation is measured then nearly everyone will fail. Innovation can be: decrease in human error, shorter cycle time, fewer defects, increased sales of an older product. My point is that innovation can be defined as incremental improvements in existing products and processes that lead to improved performance. Framing it that way, staff can more easily understand and act on what they can do differently. And that is not a huge leap.

We need new language and definitions if we want to succeed at creating a culture of innovation. Healthcare still uses quality assurance language. Customer satisfaction still works. Process improvement. These are efforts that have a history of success and are now part of these companies cultures. Finding organizations that have truly made the leap to a culture of innovation are very hard to find. Even then, I would like to know about the actual results that has produced.

The sectors that have reached out to me for help in this arena vary. Some make sense to me and others make me want to laugh. The day the nuclear plants call and ask me to help create a culture of innovation is the day I will truly freak out!

For more on this topic, here is a good blog post.

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