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The Creation of Innovation Culture “Behind the Scenes”
Innovation / Innovativeness are nowadays an often guest in so-called business parlours. Almost every issue of any business magazine covers the topic of innovativeness, while most conferences touch upon the subject for at least a few minutes. It is so because we see the innovative work and environment approach as a source of potential competitive advantage, and the change towards “easier/ faster /more efficiently / more conveniently” is inevitable.
However, despite the fact that we discuss it a lot, not many companies can boast an actual turn from investment towards the creation of innovation culture. Before we talk about the reasons for such a state, let us take a look at the definition of innovativeness.
What is Innovativeness?
Personally, I define innovativeness very broadly (more about that in a moment), but if we had to give it more context, we would probably say that it’s a search for new, often more effective ways of meeting our needs. If we accept this definition we can clearly see that we can show innovativeness every day in almost every aspect of our life.
It’s possible that if you asked many people how they understood innovativeness, they would probably think about new technologies, robots, artificial intelligence, machine learning or the Internet of things. For me, however, innovativeness is a very specific state of mind, without which there will be no innovations, whether we’re talking about the optimization of an existing solution or about generating new ones.
Of the aspects of my life, in which I use the creative and innovative approach, KITCHEN is the best example. Many of you may be thinking now: “THE HORROR! What things must be taking place in there?”. Well, you’d be right – things get interesting from time to time, and it sometimes looks like a battlefield.
Most of us amateur cooks have their own regular set of meals which we always prepare the same way. There are a bit fewer people who from time to time feel the need to spice things up; even fewer people do what I do: try something new every day.
The effects of such constant experimentation differ, of course – the outcome is at times satisfying, while on other occasions – less so. That “less so” part is rather a euphemism, by the way. If the experiment is a failure I am, of course, unsatisfied, though I don’t worry about it for a longer time than needed – which mostly means up to the point when I succeed in obtaining a different meal for my family. Sure, I feel bad about wasting resources – which in this case means food products; however, I feel fully comfortable with making mistakes and with every passing day I’m less of an amateur, I discover the unexplored and at the same time contribute to increasing the wholesomeness of my family meals.
All of this is possible due to two reasons.
First of all, I’m innovation-oriented, which means constantly searching for new ways of meeting needs, at the same time giving myself an internal consent to make mistakes. However crucial it is, the internal consent derives from another type of consent, that is the external one which has its source in my husband’s and daughter’s everyday need for a warm meal. As a cooking experimentator, I am in incredible luck since they are also open to innovation and understand that experiments are not only my passion and give me much happiness, but they are also an inherent part of the development process. If my husband showed annoyance when he has to wait for pizza for the umpteenth time because “something went wrong” I would probably give up developing my culinary skills in such a way. If my daughter didn’t say in a calm voice “Mommy, I don’t want to offend you (her exact words), I know that you worked hard, but I don’t really like it – can I have a sandwich instead?” I wouldn’t probably find the courage to explore further and continue my cooking adventures – which are called the Cooking Innovations at my home.
There’s a reason why I tell you the stories from my personal life. In that particular one, you can see a clear analogy to an organization – after all, a family is nothing else but a small, private company.
If an employee is not innovation-oriented and does not give an internal consent to making mistakes, he will not question the status quo or ask questions regarding things that could be tackled in a better way. Such an attitude derives not only from our personality (the individual level of creativity or innovativeness), but it is also, to an even larger extent, a reflection of what we are allowed and encouraged to do by our environment. And that environment which may encourage or discourage us is nothing else but the company culture I mentioned in the beginning.
Nowadays it is often said that the company culture is and will be the factor that will allow us to leave our competition behind. One of the most desired kinds of culture in today’s market is the so-called innovation culture. Many companies lay claim to being innovative, many companies point at innovation as one of their most important values, many companies base their business model on innovative solutions.
It is very alluring, especially since according to the latest report published by the International Board of Innovation Science Dennis Stauffer (1) the influence of innovativeness on establishing a company’s value is dramatic. Companies, which due to research achieved the best scores on the so-called Innovativeness Index are also making a 34 times bigger profit and a 70 times bigger revenue than those companies that achieved the lowest scores.
Still, only a few companies are able to achieve the expected results. McKinsey reports that only 26% of cultural transformations are a success (2), while according to LeanPassion 9 out of 10 transformations are a failure (3), which means that only a few can boast a return on investment in those areas.
Many research and consulting companies ask themselves why the state of affairs is like that and it seems that today we know what distinguishes companies that are successful in creating innovative cultures.
First of all, innovativeness and innovations are a tool to attain specific business goals, not a goal in itself. Innovativeness as an element of a bigger picture should be an inherent process of a company’s strategy.
The role innovation is to play in the realization of established goals should be known to all employees; they should also know that the company expects them to be creative and that they should feel safe in the creative process.
The innovation culture is often confused with the implementation of a few tools widely considered as those which support employee’s innovativeness.
Most problems that occur in the process of creating innovation culture has its source in that exact statement. Introducing a so-called InnovationBox into the company’s kitchen or buying a “Design Thinking” workshop will not make people suddenly become more creative. From my experience, I know that if a company doesn’t carefully establish among its workers the awareness of why it introduces such a tool like InnovationBox, it will quickly be filled with such ideas like a bigger amount of bananas during the fruit Mondays, or the suggestion to replace the coffee supplier. If we want to gain from its real value, innovation must become a part of the company’s DNA.
To make it possible, we have to establish in our company an already mentioned here specific “mindset”. A mindset of an employee who is a prospector, experimentator, researcher; who is bold, open to changes and willing to draw conclusions and learn on one’s mistakes.
The key role of a Leader
And that’s where the Leader comes into play. What kind of a leader is needed for the employees to behave in a way described above? So they are bold, creative, question the status quo, are not afraid to express their opinions and feel responsible for the company?
According to Freenovation and its suggested model of predicted individual innovativeness and creativity (“The Innovation Tree” model), leadership is, next to talents, values and organization of work, one of the crucial aspects of the innovation culture. The most recent nationwide research of innovativeness in Poland that aimed to determine what drives innovativeness in Polish organizations (4) showed us that the absolutely most important aspect that influences he innovativeness of the research participants was the support of their leader towards innovative action.
The newest polish research on innovativeness in search of establishing what makes innovation going in polish companies (5) showed that the most important indicator affecting the innovative mindset of employees is the support of a leader.
According to the research’s authors it is a rather broad category, which consists of leader’s every action that supports the employee and the company on its way to gain viable profits from the innovative approach – which in the research is called “the leadership of growth” in opposition to so-called “transactional leadership”, which is the management 2.0 (the “stick and carrot” method).
I think that we can safely say that the innovation culture can’t be established by a leader who himself is not a fan of innovation; who in most cases thinks convergently (vs “divergent thinking”), which means in accordance to existing rules, process, patterns, principles; who is not used to questioning the status quo and constant searching for new ways of meeting the organization’s needs and realizing its business goals.
What we need is someone who deeply understands the need for innovation, change, growth, but also completely identifies with it and everything she does supports that exact direction of the company. The leader is key in case of companies that want to realize business models based on the innovative approach (both inside and outside of an organization); it may be the case that yes, the leader communicates a specific approach, but at the same time behaves in such a way which prevents the employees and the company itself from attaining the values of the innovative approach. On the one hand, she will tell the employees to be innovative, but on the other – will not realize any of the submitted ideas due to a too big risk of failure. On the one hand, the competence profile of the company will be enriched by the “creativity” competence, on the other – the portfolio of available development forms won’t be extended by even one product dedicated to the development of that competence. On the one hand, the leader will assure her employees that she aims to gain synergy from the variety of differing opinions amongst the team’s members, but on the other – only those who always support the leader’s opinion will get promoted. Such examples can be enumerated ad infinitum; what is more – every one of us has experienced such a situation at his or her workplace. Such a situation is very dangerous. It may not only lead to losses in resources, a high amount of resignations caused by a lack of consistency between declarations and the actual behaviour of a leader, but also to, above all, failure in the realization of established business goals.
A management style that supports the innovative approach in an organization is Management 3.0. As I wrote in the previous article (“XI – Thou shall not interfere! People want, are able to and should manage themselves” External link.) (6) in Management 3.0 we are all leaders in specific circumstances. A Leader, who in this concept is called a servant leader, is a more mental leader rather than a functional one, and her task is to take any measures that aim to support the team in realization of established goals.
A servant leader manages not people, but the system around them in such a way that it facilitates the team’s work instead of making it harder. She knows that people with specific skills do their job with high quality and on time if they are given proper conditions to do so. The leader co-creates with her team a clear vision and concrete goals, but it’s the team that decides what methods should be used. The team is allowed to make an independent decision in a specified range. What is an important asset for a servant leader is a mind open to other people’s ideas and experiments. A servant leader understands that mistakes are an inherent part of an organization’s success. Moreover, she actively promotes experimentation, prototyping, constant searching and taking risks.
There is only one good way of showing the employees that we accept the mistakes on the road to creating innovation – and that way is accepting the mistakes on the road to creating innovation. That acceptance must be visible in the organization’s behaviour and reactions, i.e. the budget should consist of an element that shows that we are aware of the fact that we will probably make a few bad investments into a new product before it takes an expected form and brings acceptable profit. If we don’t, our employees will quickly figure it out that in their work there’s no room for experimentation, since no one took them into consideration when making the budget, and that means that the business goals will be realized “the old way”.
A great example of a conscious approach to learning from failures is the economy of the USA, which creates the biggest amount of new businesses and, at the same time, has the biggest percentage of failures – which, according to Nassim Taleb (the author of “Antifragile”), is a perfect prognosis of a healthy economy. According to him, failure is absolutely crucial for a system to work.
An interesting example of an authentic innovative approach of a leader is the crowdsourcing platform launched by Starbucks a few years ago – MY STARBUCKS IDEA, through which people may submit their ideas for new products and vote for them. The decision of the then head of the company was that every solution that got the biggest amount of votes should be put on a month-long trial. Risky, but it worked out perfectly. When people saw that they had a real influence on the assortment available in the coffee shops and that the company did realize their ideas, they became really engaged in the company’s life. It was very crucial for Starbucks since it was a financially difficult period for them. The platform is still working.
What is more, the innovative leader (or the one who supports an innovative approach) does not expect instant answers and instant solutions, since she knows that creative thinking takes time. Innovation days, brainstorms or forums for experience exchange may be an interesting form of creativity support, but the real creative ideas (the third phase of creative process – the incubation phase) are most often born outside of the workshop or brainstorm – just as it was in case of the engineer who, while playing with a padlock of his suitcase, came up with an idea to design the famous iPod function wheel.
It is important that the leader appreciates the value of the recuperation process, which is essential for the mind to successfully incubate new ideas.
A leader who supports innovation also appreciates the importance of “small” innovations implemented by the team members every day. Such a leader encourages teamwork as well, since (despite what most of us think) the innovator is not a mad and lonely inventor – a significant amount of important inventions is the fruit of teamwork.
Fortunately, the Leader is not alone on the way towards “a better innovative tomorrow”. The people who may (or even should) support the creation of innovation culture in an organization are the HR representatives.
The main area which, if properly designed, will support the aforementioned goal is the communication process in the company. By using all sorts of tools we establish an awareness of the goal, which in this case is the realization of the business model based on the innovation culture, as well as the expectations that a company has regarding its employees.
The Innovativeness Rhetorics should be present in almost every stage of an employee’s life in an organization. We start from the induction process when we ask a new member of the team (before full assimilation) about his ideas regarding the things we could be doing differently, at the same time informing him that everything we do in the company we do in the spirit of innovativeness. If the competence model exists in the company, the competence “Innovativeness” should be in it, with the expected behaviour clearly described. In the process of development planning, we always include that competence and we constantly, with our employees, think about its successful acquisition.
The portfolio of available development forms must include the workshops on creative thinking or Service Design. While establishing the system of goal realization evaluation or the compensation system in our company, we should pay particular attention to actions that support the creation of innovation culture, just as in case of assigning discretionary bonuses. If the company works with KUDOS, then one of the available kudos may be, for example, the InnovationHero.
The examples of innovative projects realized by our employees should widely resound in the whole company – and not only successful ones, but the failures as well, so the company shows that it’s open to experiments and learning on one’s mistakes. To inspire the employees one can regularly send them interesting cases of implementation of an innovative solution, or invite an innovation specialist to the company so he can share his experience with the workers. If our WellBeing program consists of a healthy cocktails day, we can name one of them ‘The InnoPower”.
An office of a company that works in innovation culture is arranged in a specific way. Silence zones are available for those employees who want to focus on individual work, as well as creative work zones for creativity workshops. The walls are painted in colours that induce unconventional thinking, and there are places all over the office where you can make quick notes – in case an interesting idea comes to mind. We can also regularly organize so-called InnoDays, during which we dedicate to our workers a specific amount of time they can spend on working out solutions for improving our working environment, as well as the products and services. And, most importantly, we are implementors of new ideas – we get rid of vacation requests on paper and plastic water containers; we introduce the opportunity of remote work in flexible hours; we eradicate fossilized structures and everything else that may give an impression that we only talk about being innovative.
To sum up:
- Being innovative must have a goal;
- That goal must be known to people and understood;
- The employees must be aware of how we’re going to realize that goal and what their role in that process will be;
- The LEADER is the key figure in creating innovation culture;
- The company’s environment must support the leader and teams in being innovative;
- The innovation culture should be supported on every step by the HR team – with particular attention paid to the communication process.
- Last but not least – one should not confuse the creation of innovation culture with the implementation of tools that, as their name indicates, are the tools supporting the realization of a goal, not the goal itself.
Being aware of the aforementioned rules and using them will greatly improve our chances for success in the remarkably complicated, but also satisfying process of innovation culture creation.