Transforming organisational culture in pursuit of innovation


Organisational Culture

In my previous article, Why building a culture of innovation is your competitive advantage? [1] I explored how building a culture where innovation thrives provides a clear and robust competitive advantage to your organisation. The most innovative companies, such as Amazon and GE, have innovation infused within their DNA. It isn’t so much something they do as something they just ‘are’.

Data, both from external research and my own experiences working with global clients highlights that the biggest challenge to having that innovative spirit is the culture of the organisation. Indeed, over 65% of senior execs say culture is their biggest barrier.

So, what are the key components of an organisation that has innovation capability at the heart of ‘how’ it does things and what things need to be removed or in place to start to build a culture of innovation? For me, the key to success is in the right mindset, a shared understanding and the right infrastructure to support innovation.

Let me give you a simple example. Autumn in the UK, even for city dwellers, calls for walks in the woods or the parks, kicking up leaves which rustle underfoot and breathing in air which has been swept clean of summer dust by seasonal gusts. As the wind whips the leaves up in one last aerial dance and puddles call out to be jumped and splashed in, our minds are cleared and invigorated, helping us to feel refreshed and renewed.

At least, that’s the case if we have prepared well and have an end goal in mind. With our minds attuned to enjoying the experience and with boots and waterproof clothing keeping us warm and dry, the success of the expedition is virtually assured. On the other hand, dragging the family out for a trudge around the streets; giving people no time to prepare or mentally tune in to the forthcoming activity, is only going to lead to discontent, resentment and soggy feet.

That’s not to say that spontaneity doesn’t have its place, but even spontaneity works best with the right mindset allied to a shared understanding and with the appropriate infrastructure in place. In other words, if you’re going to have a sudden impulse to walk across the fields to the pub for lunch you’d better already have people around you who like walking and have waterproof shoes to hand. Otherwise your impulse dies in a wave of objections and inertia.

So, what do walks in the countryside have to do with transforming organisational culture in order to embrace innovation? Quite simply, it’s exactly the same components which make a successful family expedition that enable leaders to set their organisations off on a successful journey towards innovation. In other words:

  • Planning and preparation
  • People engagement
  • Giving people the right tools for the task

But none of that’s going to work unless the underlying culture supports and promotes innovation. Globally, leaders recognise this. Indeed, across a wide range of surveys over recent years, on average, over 65% of senior executives highlight culture as the biggest barrier to innovation. My own work with global clients supports this view. After all, if an organisation is rife with internal politics, silo working, strict hierarchies and an isolationist viewpoint then you can forget any move towards developing the capability for innovation.

But, perhaps the problem is in the perception? In far too many instances innovation and invention are still seen as being interchangeable, with innovation still being seen as a ‘thing’ that you do to the product. As such, organisations, which try to innovate, task individuals or departments with the innovation challenge, whilst the remainder of the business carries on regardless. This type of approach fails in exactly the same way as attempts to improve customer service fail when they are confined to customer facing employees. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re looking for great customer service or innovation or any other positive outcome, unless the entire organisation is engaged in a holistic and strategic drive there will always be a barrier to delivery.

It’s time therefore to change the perception. Innovation isn’t a thing, it is a shared value and capability which runs throughout the organisation and as such if it is to succeed it has to be part of organisational culture. That’s why my latest book is entitled Building a Culture of Innovation; [2] quite simply, innovation successes arise from cultures of innovation. With that in mind, perhaps it’s time to take a quick look at the difference between invention and innovation. Invention can be described as the process of introducing something new or different. That’s it, nothing else! Innovation on the other hand looks to solve a genuine problem and in the process, add value to the customer and drive growth for the creator.

“INNOVATION-LED GROWTH arises when GENUINELY CREATIVE IDEAS to REAL PROBLEMS meet clever BUSINESS MODELS and FANTASTIC EXECUTION!”

And if you’re going to solve a genuine problem then you really have to understand your customer base. Not only that, you are also going to have to be prepared to collaborate both within the organisation and with external parties as well as being adaptable in order to deliver solutions on time.

In the book, we call those three key components (intelligence, collaboration and adaptability) Next Generation Organisation attributes. I’ve recently started referring to them as Organisation Z [3] attributes as they, together with Generation Z, are going to define the future of business. So, as we look to transform organisational culture in order to set the parameters which will enable the business to embrace innovation, Generation Z attributes should be firmly at the heart of our strategy, something I cover in article called ‘Design Thinking; the framework for success’ [4] recently posted on The Future Shapers.

If that’s our goal, what do we need to discard along the journey towards it? We can start by getting rid of the barriers which prevent us from adopting Organisation Z strategies. So, if we really want to understand our customers then let’s ditch the belief that we know what is best, that it’s our job to persuade people to buy whatever we decide to sell, and that as long as we’ve got lots of statistics that’s all we need. Oh, and just for good measure, let’s discard once and for all the idea that customer relationships are the preserve of the few rather than the entire organisation. We may also want to discard that ‘profit is all’ mentality which has already led to so many scandals over the last few years.

Moving on to collaboration, out go silos and isolationism to be replaced by an inclusive view which draws in anyone and everyone who can help us to create great solutions. This can be one of the hardest areas to tackle in an organisation with a firmly entrenched culture of hierarchy, particularly one in which promotion is seen as a competition in which interdepartmental rivalries play a strong part. But to be quite honest, if you have a culture like that then irrespective of any move towards innovation you need to radically overhaul it before it destroys you. And it’s the same for adaptability. It’s time to stop controlling your people’s actions with process and sign-off and start engaging them in developing positive solutions. When you trust your people and openly challenge them to deliver without fear of failure then you would be amazed at the way in which they can deliver.

None of that’s going to happen unless leadership teams are fully engaged with the ideals and aspirations of building a culture of innovation. The same ‘poll of polls’ that I mentioned earlier indicates that 33% of executives believe a lack of leadership commitment and vision is a barrier to innovation. It’s not enough to say that you believe in building a culture of innovation; as a leader, your every action and decision has to be focused towards an innovation-driven outcome. How can silos breakdown when the executive team play ‘my department your department’ around the boardroom table?

Every journey starts with a single step and that first step towards transforming your organisation to embrace innovation has to start with you. By embracing the ideal, by setting the conditions which will create the new culture, by engaging your people in the ideal of change, and by refusing to allow negative tendencies which may have held sway in the past; you can set your organisation on the right pathway. Be resolute and before you know it the clean wind of change will be blowing through the organisation, refreshing and invigorating it as everyone joins in the search for genuine solutions.

[1] https://thefutureshapers.com/building-culture-innovation-competitive-advantage/
[2] https://crisbeswick.com/building-a-culture-of-innovation/
[3] https://thefutureshapers.com/organisation-z-not-generation-z/
[4] https://thefutureshapers.com/design-thinking-framework-success/
This article was written by Cris Beswick for The Future Shapers and previously posted on 19/12/2017.

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