“Our people are not very innovative.”
This is how more than a few leaders sum up the challenge they believe their organizations face when it comes to innovation. Their people are the problem. These leaders believe that while their people are very good at doing what needs to be done today, they are lousy at coming up with ideas to handle what might be coming in the future. However, none of the leaders who voice this opinion seem to have stepped back far enough to see that their people are delivering exactly what has been asked of them.
Organizations strive to be optimized, lean and efficient. As a result, everyone’s focus is on the task at hand, not the task that might possibly be at hand in three to five years. And performance appraisal systems seal the deal, awarding promotions and bonuses for achieving annual results that keep the existing business growing and profitable. But these are only the formal mechanisms that get in the way of a culture of innovation. They are the outward manifestations of culture. It is the informal atmosphere in which everyday business is conducted that creates culture. It’s the subtle and sometimes not so subtle messages that individuals receive when they offer an opinion or suggestion that create a culture of innovation or its opposite, a culture of business as usual.
I like the definition for culture of innovation that Adam Bryant gave in a recent webinar (1):
Culture is the collective relationships in an organization that create a welcoming environment for crazy ideas.
I believe that if people in an organization are not very innovative, it’s not because they cannot be innovative, but because when you peer just below the surface, they are being actively discouraged. How organizations discourage innovation comes in so many flavors and forms, it’s impossible to catalog all of them. One of my favorites is the tyranny of the inner circle. Inner circles form when people coalesce in little affinity groups with others who are like-minded. They drift towards one another under the banner of “getting it.” Being part of a group empowers those who “get it” to express a dismissive attitude and take a bunker-like stance towards those who “don’t get it.” Who are the most likely candidates to be among those that “don’t get it?”
New employees. Even if they are experienced, new employees just don’t get the way things work or how to get things done. They get the message that absent this knowledge, it’s best to keep your ideas to yourself. The message is often delivered in a very subtle way. For example, in group discussions if new employees are bold enough to offer up a suggestion that runs against the group’s consensus opinion, they are perfunctorily thanked for their suggestion and the conversation moves on as if the idea had never been put forward. For a new employee, the message received is “shut up and listen until you figure out how we do things around here.” Until you “get it.”
Non-experts in the core business. In my opinion, expertise can be one of the biggest impediments to innovation. When a group of experts in the same industry or process gets together for problem-definition or problem-solving, the homogeneity of experience is often an innovation-killer. Organizations try to combat this mental closing of the ranks by bringing in people whose experience lies adjacent to or entirely outside the group of experts. But the barriers of industry jargon and a tendency to immediately head down into the weeds gets in the way, keeping diverse points-of-view on the fringe of consideration. Non-experts in the core business obviously “don’t get it,” but without a purposeful use of their differences, the experts usually shut them out.
Junior employees. Blessed with the characteristics of the two groups described above, the junior employee lacks both experience in the core business and experience elsewhere. They really don’t “get it.” However, rather than use what they do bring to the table (e.g., millennial perspective, a more bias-free perspective, etc.), most organizations treat junior level employees like little children who should be seen and not heard.
A close second to the inner circle machinations that actively undercut a culture of innovation is the half-hearted leadership attempt to try something. Even though innovation requires experimentation, many organizations seem to run experiments designed to reinforce the belief that their organizations are not innovative. These experiments often have the feel of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Let’s call this innovation-discourager the splatter wall syndrome.
The splatter wall syndrome occurs when an executive gets a bee in his or her bonnet that the organization should give innovation a try. The resulting project is usually a stand-alone event which even if deemed a success (lots of participation, a winning contribution or two that is selected for further consideration or development) doesn’t really do much to alter the status quo. There is no Act Two, no real vision for where this is leading the organization or how to take the next step. In many cases, other priorities take hold and it is back to business as usual.
If the event is deemed a failure (low participation levels, no ideas deemed worthy of further pursuit), then the result is even worse because the cynics have proven their point, people are not innovative. Despite all the talk about never wasting a good failure, in my experience, failure is rarely mined for insight in organizations. Even if everyone acknowledges that failure is a necessary part of innovation, I have yet to meet the executive or participant who wants to be closely associated with one. And outside of a few exemplary organizations that debrief on failures as well as successes, most organizations leave failure unexamined (aside from assigning blame) and quickly move on.
These are only two of the ways that a culture of business as usual gains ascendancy and a culture of innovation takes a back seat in most organizations. There are doubtless many, many more. What can be done to shift the balance? To boost the factors that build a culture of innovation so that it is at least co-equal to a culture of business as usual?
Adam Bryant proposes six rules to follow in order to create a culture of innovation. These rules also apply to strategy, but the slant that Bryant takes and which I slant even further, bend them in the direction of innovation. I like Bryant’s first three rules, but I have changed the last three so much that I’m not sure he would want credit for them. (For Bryant’s six rules see my endnotes (2).)
#1 A Simple Plan
There must be a playbook that everyone uses and it must be easy to keep score, to know whether the organization is winning or losing. The scorekeeping part feels like a restatement of the maxim attributed to Peter Drucker – “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Ironically, according to the Drucker Institute, Peter Drucker never actually made this statement about management and measurement (3). Apparently Mr. Drucker held a much more nuanced view and believed that there are some critical aspects of managing an organization that do not yield to measurement. The same holds true for some aspects of innovation.
There is an uncomfortable tension about innovation – for an organization to be successful, it must give people constraints and an endpoint at the same time that it permits them to wander outside the lines. The innovation process starting at the fuzzy front end through launch needs to be mapped out and the decision-making criteria that progress an idea through the process need to be easily understood and transparent. Otherwise, it’s hard to engage people in the process and it’s even harder to declare victory. At the same time, innovation by its very nature doesn’t stay within the boundaries. Organizational systems do their best to root out messiness, but a simple plan for innovation needs some messiness to be effective.
#2 Rules of the Road
When a workplace is exciting and people are energized, it isn’t because the organization’s values are listed on its website or plastered on posters. But it’s also true that when people can unhesitatingly and un-ironically tell you what the organization’s values are, it’s likely that it’s a place where doing great work is possible. Values that have this effect transcend bland slogans. People actually use them to evaluate the way that they interact and make decisions.
Bryant suggests that there can’t be more than three values (human beings can’t remember more than three things at a time, take that multi-tasking!). His examples of great values: 1) “Be an owner. Help others.” 2) “Be in. Be real. Be bold.” Similarly, innovation benefits from guiding principles. They might be statements such as: “There are no bad ideas, but there are some ideas that are not right for our business at the moment.” “Good ideas can come from anyone and anywhere.” The key: leaders must believe them.
#3 A Little Respect
I have a hard time knowing where to start with this one. It’s a little bit like a kindergarten truism and dangerously close to “be nice to others.” But, in my opinion, this might be the single-most important rule for organizations to follow if they truly want to build a culture of innovation and it may be the most difficult in the hard-driving, fast-paced, bottom-line focused world of business to achieve. Because, at the end of the day, for a culture of innovation to exist, people have to feel free to speak-up. For that to happen, others must make what Bryant calls the “Most Respectful Interpretation” of what they hear.
In some ways, Rule #3 is a corollary of Rule #2. Treating the ideas of others as if they are inherently worthwhile puts the Rules of the Road into action. This is very difficult in the culture of business as usual which is always driving towards a quick solution and seeks to rapidly dismiss ideas that seem off-topic. How many meetings have you been in where even if people don’t say anything, their body language and facial expressions say it all? The reason that it’s important to treat what people say as if it has merit, is because sometimes the merit isn’t immediately obvious. Even if it turns out that the idea won’t work, for great ideas to emerge, leaders must model a respectful attitude towards new ideas and insist that everyone act in this way.
#4 Cast the Widest Net Possible
Far too many organizations are extremely timid when it comes to who gets invited to the innovation party. Typically business units keep their innovation programs within the business unit. Despite the fact that most heads nod in agreement with the maxim attributed to Albert Einstein “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” this is precisely what tightly prescribed participant boundaries does.
Rather than take advantage of the diversity that exists within their own organizations, most innovation initiatives remain firmly fixed within organizational silos. The rise of crowd-sourcing and open innovation is the clearest countervailing force that the default position of keeping it local will ultimately be unmoored. Casting the widest net possible contributes to the messiness that is required to foster innovation.
#5 Embrace Discomfort
Innovation is not about agreement. In fact, it’s much closer to the opposite. But handling disagreement and conflict productively is hard. It slows things down and most people would prefer to avoid it. An intrepid few might decide to seek forgiveness rather than ask permission, but this does little to challenge the status quo. And it only works if the gambit is successful. Failure exacts a high price. Since a culture of innovation must somehow tolerate challenges to the status quo and resist sweeping failure under the rug, people must be able to have uncomfortable conversations, disagree and still find common ground. This is the true essence of collegiality which as it turns out is not comfortable. Common ground is not a happy place because no one gets everything that he or she wants. But it is the productive place from which true change is possible and the crucible of innovation.
#6 Do It In Person
Or as close to “in person” as possible. Tone, intention, enthusiasm: all of the cues and energy we get from listening and/or seeing other people. These cues are important whenever the stakes are high. But they are especially important when people are working together to develop new ideas. The cues and energy that come from working together in person (or nearly in person) frequently help groups avoid misunderstanding or clear it up quickly so that it doesn’t become a stumbling block. While the research on whether groups foster or retard creativity is mixed, the collaboration that groups need to take an idea from its earliest conception through to completion can be more productive when communication is enriched with verbal and nonverbal cues.
It’s a rare organization that will fire on all cylinders when it comes to following these six rules. I believe that organizations which intentionally strive towards following all of them have a good chance of evolving a culture of innovation. The keys are intentionally and all of them. A culture of innovation is a constant effort to sub-optimize just enough for new ideas to break through business as usual.
(1) “Creating a Culture of Innovation: Lessons from CEOs,” ExecuNet webinar broadcast on 11/6/14, Adam Bryant, Speaker and Author, based on his book: Quick and Nimble, Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation. [When I saw the title, my first thought was: what organization would not want to be quick and nimble? But, the quick are also among the first to run into problems, dead-ends and failure. That’s why the fast-follower archetype has such power. And nimble? Nimble is not fun either. To be nimble you must be light on your feet which means you are always, always, always resource-constrained. All that pivoting can leave you disoriented and exhausted. Being quick and nimble is not a cake-walk.
(2) Adam Bryant’s six rules for creating a culture of innovation: 1) A Simple Plan, 2) Rules of the Road, 3) A Little Respect, 4) It’s About the Team, 5) Adult Conversations and 6) The Hazards of Email.
(3) Measurement Myopia - on Drucker’s more nuanced view of measurement and management.