The Yin & Yang of Innovation Culture


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How would you describe your current organisational culture? Are you one of the 75% of leaders who claimed in a 2018 survey [1] that their culture was already one of innovation, experimentation and risk-taking? And if so, what did you mean by that?

It’s a fair bet that if you talked about experimentation and risk-taking, you weren’t implying that your culture promoted free-for-all anarchy. Or if you were then you won’t be in business much longer, if you still are today!

So, while experimentation and risk-taking are part of a culture of innovation, they only contribute to business success if circumscribed. So, given that in the same survey, only 37% of employees agreed with their leaders about having a culture of innovation, experimentation and risk-taking, I would be tempted to examine how tight those controls are.

One key area to examine with experimentation and risk-taking is how failure is perceived. Regular readers of my articles will already know the importance I place on failure as a learning point rather than a cause for censure. But whilst failure of a conceived and well-planned experiment is part of the innovation process, incompetence is not.

Gary Pisano sums this up in a Harvard business review article [2] when he comments that “a tolerance for failure requires an intolerance for incompetence.” He also highlights other parts of a culture of innovation where balance comes into play, such as; collaboration and individual accountability or flatter business structures and strong leadership.

It’s an important message shedding light on why some cultures of innovation either don’t get off the ground or fail to match up to their promise. This failure lies at the door of leaders who fail to recognise what a culture of innovation requires before they start to transform their organisations.

Innovation-led cultures work when every aspect of the organisation and its people align with a strategy designed to pursue innovation. Collaboration doesn’t happen when you break down silos. People aren’t creative because you give them freedom. And customers don’t buy products because you are offering something new.

Building a culture of innovation takes hard work and understanding. It means creating a ‘smart risk’ environment where people are free to challenge, explore and experiment. It means striving to create products, services and experiences that meet genuine needs rather than doing stuff for the sake of it. Or at worst, perpetuating innovation theatre! It also means leading an organisation towards a defined, purpose-driven goal.

A culture of innovation can only occur when you balance the creative curiosity of people and a purpose-driven strategy. That balance starts with senior teams’ ability to lead for innovation. As Gary Pisano also commented: “If you want your organisation to strike the delicate balance required, then you as a leader must prove the ability to strike that balance yourself.”

[1] https://www.capgemini.com/consulting/resources/the-digital-culture-challenge/
[2] https://hbr.org/2019/01/the-hard-truth-about-innovative-cultures

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