You know that jigsaw that you got for Christmas, no not the 50-piece children’s one with large friendly pieces and obvious connections. I’m talking about the 3-D globe jigsaws that look great on the box but seem impossible to even start. There are no easy corners or edges and every piece seems to be connected to every other one through the core. The annoying thing is that you know if you could just work out where to start, tackling the 3-D jigsaw could be tremendously satisfying and rewarding.
Innovation culture is a bit like tackling that jigsaw. You know what your end goal is, and you appreciate what rewards can come from successful completion, but it just looks so complex that it is sometimes hard to know where to start. And the trouble is that if you approach the challenge in the same way as a child’s jigsaw, looking only for the obvious connections then you are potentially missing out on the rich spider’s web of interconnectivity which will lead to true differentiation and genuine innovation, not theatre!
Having said that, building a culture of innovation isn’t an inherently complex task. The trick is to move your mindset away from any notion that building a culture of innovation requires some sort of linear action; laboriously placing single brick on single brick and not moving forward until the preceding row is firmly in place. When it comes to organisational transformation in pursuit of innovation, success comes from taking a spoonful of the innovation medicine, i.e. aiming to be innovative about being innovative, drawing all elements together in one holistic push. This results in an interconnected web of action and interaction, an ecosystem with every element supporting and complementing every other strand of the organisation.
Let me give you an example which isn’t specifically related to innovation but demonstrates how disparate elements of your organisation are interconnected through an invisible web of cause and effect. You decide to do something about customer satisfaction levels which have been falling off of late.
Perhaps naturally your first port of call is to the customer service team who are on the frontline of interaction between your organisation and your customers. But when you start to ask questions you find that that team is as unhappy with your organisation as your customers are. Perhaps more so, as they have been bearing the brunt of negative feedback. You investigate further and in the course of your investigations discover that:
- A recent decision to switch supplier has resulted in a deterioration of delivery times.
- An upgrade to the website may have made use of the latest technology but in the process has added layers of complexity to the customer ordering process.
- HR’s decision to devolve some of its reporting and data gathering functions to departments or teams has resulted in individual staff members across the board having to step away from their work on a regular basis in order to fulfil internal reporting requirements.
- And what people have to say about the sheer complexity of the finance department’s new expenses system is perhaps best left unreported.
As a result, employee engagement across the board has fallen away, as has productivity. People are unhappy and stressed and this is feeding through to customers and impacting profitability in a myriad of ways.
Why are all these things happening? Quite simply, because some time ago the board took the decision to improve control and look for cost-cutting measures. As a result, every department, every team, every function was instructed in isolation to take some form of action. And they did so; unfortunately, because they were acting in isolation, they just looked at their own individual end goals without considering the impact of their actions on colleagues, the organisation and its clients.
To put it bluntly, when it comes to corporate initiatives, divide and conquer is putting it mildly. The real result is far more likely to be along the lines of divide and destroy.
So, what’s the solution? Well let’s start by saying that doing nothing is not an option. Every organisation needs to grow and develop in order to survive. In fact, a BCG article from November 2017  commented that “virtually every company needs a transformation.” So much so that with one third of the companies analysed in developing the report facing a sharp decline in shareholder return over any two-year span and a third of those deteriorating further over the subsequent five years, the conclusion was that “most companies need to transform at least once during any five-year window.” The quote by by Benjamin Franklin is also apt, “when you are finished changing, you’re finished.”
The secret of transformation success is to recognise the interconnectedness and interdependence within your organisation and draw all the strands together in a holistic move towards differentiation. And that holistic transformation ambition isn’t going to have a hope of succeeding unless you step away from the linear, departmentalised, view of your organisation. In effect this requires a step up in consciousness, a recognition of cause and effect and the way in which the actions of one individual, team or department can profoundly affect others.
In his book ‘The Ravenous Brain’  neuroscientist Daniel Bor argues that “The process of combining more primitive pieces of information to create something more meaningful is a crucial aspect both of learning and of consciousness and is one of the defining features of human experience.” He also comments that “Some of our greatest insights can be gleaned from moving up another level and noticing that certain patterns relate to others, which on first blush may appear entirely unconnected – spotting patterns of patterns.”
Moving away from linear working, hierarchy and demarcations; taking a step back to look for patterns of patterns not only requires a transformation approach throughout the organisation but also transformation of thinking for some organisational leaders. To a greater or lesser extent, we are all products of the machine age in which people were merely seen as elements within a defined process. Shaking off that legacy and stepping into a new era, defined by the fourth Industrial revolution which ushers in empowerment and innovation can require a change of leadership mindset and behaviour which is as profound as the transformation required within the organisation.
This abstract from the recent HBR article ‘The Leaders’ Guide to Corporate Culture’  pretty much sums up the link between innovation leadership mindset and behaviour and building a culture of innovation:
“For better and worse, culture and leadership are inextricably linked. Founders and influential leaders often set new cultures in motion and imprint values and assumptions that persist for decades. Over time an organization’s leaders can also shape culture, through both conscious and unconscious actions (sometimes with unintended consequences). The best leaders we have observed are fully aware of the multiple cultures within which they are embedded, can sense when change is required, and can deftly influence the process.”
However, despite someone once saying, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, I believe strategy, leadership and culture eat breakfast together!
Some of you may ask why I am advocating a holistic approach to innovation culture transformation when in my book “Building a Culture of Innovation” I set out what appears to be a six-step process. The answer quite simply comes from the subtitle of the book “a practical framework” and from the first ‘step’ which talks about knowing where you are now. Building an understanding of where your organisation currently sits in terms of innovation culture and maturity also requires leaders to step back and understand that interconnectivity which flows throughout the organisation. And the end goal is not simply one box ticking achievement but creating a framework which will enable innovation, as a demonstrable capability, to flourish and develop on an ongoing basis.
As a recent BCG article says, “transformations are no longer one-time initiatives.” Not that they ever should have been but as the BCG article goes on to highlight “Because the pace of change is so fast, companies need to adopt an always-on transformation mindset.” Understanding this, stepping back and seeing the patterns within patterns which inform culture and delivery within your organisation is the crucial first step in the innovation transformation puzzle. When you can see how all those individual pieces interconnect then continuous innovation and great customer experiences are only a short step away.
In the HBR article referred to earlier, there is also a section called ‘Defining Culture’ and it states that;
“Culture is the tacit social order of an organization: It shapes attitudes and behaviours in wide-ranging and durable ways. Cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group. When properly aligned with personal values, drives, and needs, culture can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and foster an organization’s capacity to thrive.”
So, my challenge to organisational leaders is; how clear is your innovation culture strategy? Because if you can indeed ‘unleash tremendous amounts of energy’ in pursuit of innovation you stand a chance of becoming a ‘Next Generation Organisation’ and one of The Future Shapers!