August 27

Innovation Culture is the Game

Leadership, commitment, integration; these three keywords emerged from a virtual ‘fireside chat’ which I was invited to take part in recently. Introduced by Jan Kennedy the Managing Partner – Academy for Corporate Entrepreneurship; my fellow panellists were Michael Pacanowsky, best known for his transformative work at W. L. Gore & Associates and Gareth Bullen, CEO at Centre for Enterprise.

The discussion took place as part of the prelude to the Intrapreneurship Conference which is due to take place in New York on the 21st-23rd October 2015. Under the heading of building a culture of innovation we explored some vital lessons which we have learned from our individual work in instilling cultures of innovation in organisations across the globe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we started with leadership and the vital role which leaders have to play not only in defining the culture but in leading change. One aspect which emerged strongly from our discussion was the way in which the nature of leadership not only defined the organisational culture but also defined the chances of a successful transformation. Michael summed this up when he highlighted the way in which Bill Gore’s leadership style was based upon organising for opportunity. Bill Gore believed that if rather than accepting an order people made commitments then the attitude and energy which they brought to the task was huge.

Backing this up, Gareth outlined the way in which Northern Gas Networks realised they had reached a plateau by following a command and control style of leadership and therefore brought in a new style which empowered their people to use the strengths and talents which they had to achieve the business goal. Both of these examples reflect the experience which I have had when helping leaders to transform their organisations to ones which have embraced a culture of innovation. Exceptional leaders have the confidence to build a culture in which people feel comfortable that they can contribute and that leads to organisation-wide innovation.

One aspect of cultural transformation which we all agreed on was the importance of the leadership team being fully behind the change. Yes, barriers can arise at any level and it is important that middle managers are brought into the mix as early as possible so that they promote change to their team, thereby diffusing the new culture throughout the organisation; but unless the leadership are fully engaged at the outset, then there is little point in proceeding. This is in fact a key failure point when it comes to instilling cultures of innovation. As Gareth commented, there’s comfort in command and control and whilst it’s easy to verbally commit to stepping out of that comfort zone, having the courage to do so is another matter entirely.

Following on from this, the way in which the culture change is introduced across the organisation is also critical if leaders are to avoid ending up with pockets of innovation while the rest of the organisation carries on regardless. This requires careful planning as leaders follow a transition pathway which leads from understanding the ‘why’ through agreeing the future, communicating the ideal, building innovation capability and then embedding the new culture within the organisation. This transition pathway is fully explained in our forthcoming book “Building a Culture of Innovation – A Practical Framework for Placing Innovation at the Core of Your Business”*

The pathway isn’t always easy; there will be attitudes to change and objections to overcome. But then if everything in business was easy, there would be no need for business leaders. It’s when it comes to devising the strategy and implementing culture change that exceptional leaders stand out. And if you ever doubted why culture change was so important I’ll leave you with the quote with which the Intrapreneurship Conference team introduced our recent discussion:

“I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game—it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value. Vision, strategy, marketing, financial management—any management system, in fact—can set you on the right path and carry you for a while. But no enterprise—whether in business, government, education, health care, or any area of human endeavour—will succeed over the long haul if those elements aren’t part of its DNA.”

Lou Gerstner, about his tenure as CEO for IBM

*Written by Cris Beswick, Derek Bishop and Jo Geraghty. Published 3 December, available for pre-order from 3 September 2015.


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