Innovation Is Not About Digital, It’s About Culture26 April, 2016 / Articles
Companies can outsource innovation. They can launch accelerators, incubators and hackathons. They can even invest in startups with options to own the company down the road. They might even form commercial partnerships which blend their products with those of newer, shinier players. But when it comes to innovating from within, most companies struggle.
The typical response is to launch an innovation campaign or hire consultants to modernize a product or build a mobile app. While these fixes can address short term, bullet-ed priorities they don’t change the underlying problem, which is the banality of large company innovation efforts. Campaigns can provide step-by-step guidelines, but they only add yet another layer of process to an existing bureacracy. The real issue is company culture.
Culture is a fuzzy word. Some companies mistake culture for beanbag chairs and free soda in their pantry. Others point to flex-time policies and work-life balance achievements. It is neither. Rather, culture is the unspoken, but understood, way things are done, the way decisions are dealt, the under currents which determine what gets prioritized and the invisible measure tape by which actions are rewarded. It’s all of the things that are not in the human resource policy manual, but become institutionalized through repeated, yet subliminal reinforcement.
In today’s competitive and fast moving business landscape, large companies stand to thrive or waste away, depending on their ability to build an environment and culture which values new ideas, welcomes curiosity, adapts to new realities and rewards those behaviors monetarily and visibly. Ultimately, people figure out what they can and cannot say, ask about or challenge, based on who gets to be the leaders and what they do and say. Employees know where they will be valued for thinking out loud and when they should vote with their feet. When companies struggle with innovation, what they are really struggling with is a leadership team that has created a sterile and censored environment.
While some of these things may sound simple, the list below provides seven ways leaders can change their behavior to encourage a new environment.
Demand Speed. Leaders who ask for faster completion, quick one-pagers and shorter meetings are silently telling their teams that they want to cut to the chase. Faster decision-making ultimately allows time to be spent on the things that really require it, rather than re-analyzing and deliberating over documents.
Go Outside. Leaders who spend more time with competitors, customers, market analysts, new suppliers and other leaders are likely to have fresher and more current ideas about what the next new product or service could be. Bring colleagues along to external meetings so they too can learn.
Stop Refining Minutiae. Refining a planning document, a presentation or speech, especially for internal audiences adds very little value and steals away time from customer facing initiatives. Correct grammar, fix typos and make sure the message is right. After that, focus your team’s efforts and time on the real work of execution, not editing.
Point out the problem. When leaders point out the pain and ask for help, they demonstrate humility and credibility. Admitting that all is not perfect, automatically draws the masses. Asking for help is a human act that motivates everyone to be part of the solution.
Be accessible. Leaders who remain at a distance, with the door closed, risk shutting themselves out of critical dialogues with employees. While it is impossible to answer every email or take every meeting request, create forums and opportunities for employees to share their ideas and talk about what they are seeing on the front lines.
Visit a new country. Leaders who travel abroad for work or pleasure will inevitably carry back inspired perspectives about how their business could work in a different country. Meeting the needs of customers in a different country might improve services back home.
Mix it up. Give your best employees assignments in different functions, regions and business units. People will compare what they see in a new group with what they used to do. They will bring back knowledge and new ideas to your business.
The most innovative leaders are the ones who can willingly take risks, admit mistakes, and allow their employees to try new things and fail. When companies and leaders genuinely demonstrate this, they won’t need a playbook or a consultant. Employees will step up and innovation will follow.
The scientist and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.