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March 16, 2016

Does Your Culture Embrace Innovation?

Summary:

The simple question, “What really dumb stuff do we do around here?” in the right penalty-free environment unleashes a torrent of change.

Photo Courtesy of Dan Mason

Why does it matter whether your organization embraces innovation by design? We are at the beginning of an era where the confluence of increasingly powerful computing capability, ease of starting a tech-intensive firm and massive data in a deeply networked world will drive more innovation more broadly than ever before. The rate of change and, indeed, the speed with which new incumbents enter markets and existing players fail will only increase. This means innovation must become part of a company’s fabric and its culture to ensure success.

Looking over the past 20 years to gain a better view of the next 20 years, there are three things that stand out, are surprising and are instructive.

  1. Science, geo-politics, sports, weather, information technology and cyber are all areas full of events that, a year or two before the “event,” prominent insiders would have said were not in the realm of possibility—they were not just unlikely but impossible, if not loony.
  2. While impressive, the huge growth and acceleration we have seen in information technology, social media, mobile, big data, several areas of science and cyber all exhibit patterns of the beginning of something—not a pattern of stability, maturation or, even, peaking. The amount of data, the amount of IP-enabled nodes and the throughput cost of computing could all scale 100 – 500 times in the next decade, making today just the beginning of a hockey-stick-like curve.
  3. The simple truth, threat and opportunity is that the rate of change is increasing across all areas of life while the scale of change is expanding.

What does all that mean? One thing is certain: Being agile is not enough. Those who effectively embrace innovation at an organizational (if not cultural) level will fare better than those who do not. Indeed, if this is the beginning of accelerating rates of change with massive outlier impacts, then driving innovation pragmatically across an organization is imperative.

See Also: Innovation Trends in 2016

If, from the top, the mission for everyone in an organization includes being innovative, this can become part of the fabric, the culture of the organization. Businesses that effectively embrace innovation at a cultural level will fare better than those that do not.

Still, there is a massive amount of fog surrounding the word “culture.” I often hear it is the insurmountable obstacle to innovation at scale and pace.

One Fortune 500 Example: Motorola

In the early 2000s, I was an officer with tech and business responsibilities at Motorola. The culture was largely internally focused, obsessed with continuous (often marginal) improvements, in love with engineering and intellectual property (IP) filings and not necessarily the monetization of IP. It was a family-oriented culture with, literally, generations of the family working at the firm. But the firm was failing.

The board brought in a new CEO from Silicon Valley, and we changed the company culture radically in 18 months. We did six simple things, instigated and championed by the new CEO:

  1. Clearly communicated a broad new mission about being externally focused, fast-paced, innovative and customer-centric
  2. Set out the behaviors that we expected and that the company would reward, as well as behaviors we would punish
  3. Continually “sold” (over-communicated) the rationale of why we were changing
  4. Made sure rewards and punishments were publicly meted out to support the new direction
  5. Matched structure to mission and talent to task; (when the game changes from soccer to rugby, not all team members have a role despite prior excellent performance)
  6. Eliminated active objectors and passive resistors who simulated support but were not rowing the boat (a third of the top 120 executives changed in about 12 months, mostly for this reason)

Motorola changed its culture and performance radically in 18 months. We released the breakthrough RAZR phone, which became the best-selling phone of all time. IT, for example, became a platform for tech breakthroughs and even had a venture arm for emerging tech.

Unfortunately, shortly after that, Apple made a thing called the iPhone, we made some very bad leadership talent decisions and we backed hardware over software in our largest business unit.

No amount of motivation or positive innovation culture will save you from a bad strategy that is married to poor talent decisions in key posts, compounded by groundbreaking, world-class competition.

Cultural obstacles

A well-communicated mission, backed up by clarity on what garners rewards and punishments, is key. The rewards and punishments must be broadly, consistently and continuously meted out for the behaviors that merit them. This will drive the behaviors in the organization. Lots of organizations get the reward part generally right, but they fail miserably on the punishment side, then wonder why they have cultural obstacles.

Done properly, rewards and punishments drive the behaviors inside your organization. The sum of those behaviors is your culture. 

Tips for building an innovation culture

Innovation must be about both big and small innovation, not just breakthroughs. Almost all organizations have an untapped wealth of innovation they can access by just eliminating the longstanding negativity that confront the rank and file daily. The front-line person in accounts payable and customer service or the distribution center in Managua may have process ideas that are innovative and high-impact for the whole organization.

See Also: Tech Innovation Is No Longer Optional

The simple question, “What really dumb stuff do we do around here?” in the right penalty-free environment usually unleashes a torrent. But without a culture of innovation, small, incremental, continuous improvements lie dormant.

Idea platforms and innovation/suggestion processes are all well and fine, but they should live inside an innovation culture where everyone thinks it’s part of their individual mission, with the underpinning or institutional agility and continuous improvement that goes with it. Again, you are not asking each person to reinvent Google, Facebook or the low-cost Fusion; you are rewarding them for innovative improvements.

To keep up with the changing external environment, an organization must be adaptable, agile, great at managing change and effective at the necessary but mundane underlying program management. An organization must also be deeply externally aware and manage emerging potential challenges, opportunities and threat profiles as far in advance as possible. No culture can remain innovative if it is internally focused and not connected purposefully to the outside world.

One simple approach to help instantiate innovation is to use “HLI” and that modern cultural artifact PowerPoint to drive innovation into the bedrock of the culture. I did this at several firms where PowerPoint was closer to an addiction than a facet of the culture. Quite simply, I insisted every program update, every group or function presentation, start with HLI.

  • H = Highlights: Show highlights of what the team did well. The real objective is to say “thanks” and acknowledge a mini win. Over time, teams start to think in terms of what they can put under ‘H’ on the front page. Accomplishment and recognition of accomplishment are necessary for a motivated environment.
  • L = Lowlights: Here you want to see some stretch, some failure. But, most of all, you want to see some learning and experimenting. By reviewing this without beating anyone up—maybe even praising the effort—you eliminate the fear. The message quickly goes through the organization that no one got killed for stretching or trying harder and occasionally dropping the ball. This also helps kill one of the most anti-innovation elements in business, the “under promise, over deliver” malaise.
  • I = Innovation: This is simply asking what you tried that was new, what you grabbed from phase two and did in phase one, what serial process you made parallel, what new method or tool you used, what you borrowed from prior efforts, etc.

If anyone shows up with a presentation that doesn’t lead with HLI, you politely cancel the meeting and get them to come back later. Over time, this creates activity inside teams so they can fill in the three sections. Teams start to have early conversations about how they are going to innovate, stretch and learn.

Innovation at scale requires change management 

There are many stories about the initial excitement of going big on innovation that are then followed by failure and disillusionment because the leadership attention waned as the novelty of the program passed and the hard work of change management, scaling and maintaining ensued.

I cannot talk about creating a culture of innovation without also teaching which change management models work best. It sounds obvious to say driving a culture of innovation is change-intensive, yet I almost never see a decent understanding of change management models and which one is most effective.

There are four basic management models:

  1. Edict
  2. Persuasion
  3. Participation (the communities of interest help define the change)
  4. Intervention (the sponsor justifies the need for change, monitors the process and communicates progress)

The change management model that has the highest frequency of success is intervention. It is at least twice as effective as the next-best model. It requires active leadership to continually “sell” the vision or plan, even while executing it. Understanding how that works and making sure everyone understands and follows the changed playbook are topics for a later article.

Suffice it to say, if you were to map the change processes at most firms, they often resemble spaghetti–an inefficient, unintended, sub-optimized maze. The majority of large tech-intensive programs are late, over budget, deliver less than promised or all of the above. Most companies have never mapped their processes and assume all is well.

Bottom line

Creating a culture of innovation inside a supporting ecosystem with a modicum of useful tools and the right leadership can lead to great success. Innovation is a pragmatic, broad-based journey, not a fad-centric exercise. Done well, innovation is the key to being effectively agile, and it is a concrete force multiplier. It very well may be the only sustainable competitive advantage over the next decade.

Do you have a culture that can innovate broadly, or do you have a silo-ed innovation team or champion or campaign?

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About the Author

Toby Redshaw is a global business transformation leader who has driven P&L and business process/ performance improvements across multiple industries. He is known for helping firms deliver competitive advantage through innovative, real-world IT centric strategy and speed-of-execution in high growth, high service, and high technology environments.

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