If the culture cannot change then the business cannot change

I received many comments and tweets about the previous post. Thank you for ideas and comments

Some agreed that innovation is the result of culture. Some said that culture is not only created by management, but also by staff. For instance, the admin pool in a traditional engineering company can be very innovative (and creative) even if the rest of the business is stuck in the 1980s.

Somebody told me that creating an innovative culture is in itself a chicken-egg (low equilibrium) situation, because for a leader to create (or enable) an innovative culture takes innovation in itself. You can see where this is going.

Then I discovered a recent cartoon in my inbox by Hugh Macleod of Gapingvoid fame. This cartoon says it all.

An organization that cannot change its culture (due to too rigid systems, due to lack of management capability, due to its people) has become trapped in time. While some organizations may exist like this due to sheer momentum, due to protection (by law), by continuous funding, or for whatever reason, will struggle to adapt to external change. These organizations are not resilient and they are at the mercy of external supporters (a.k.a clients, benefactors, funders or shareholders).

I was also asked how some organizations can still innovative despite a poor innovation culture. Again, it is of course possible to replace a machine, or for a few people in an organization to design something brilliant, or for a new process to emerge. Of course it is possible. But it takes much more energy, determination of a few, and some really tenacity to be innovative in an un-innovative (what is the right word here?) culture.

I am sure more comments will come.

Cheers, Shawn

I appreciated the comments received by e-mail, but wonder why people are not posting comments to this article? Is the WordPress registration process to difficult? Please let me know. And keep those comments coming!

Innovation as cultural as opposed to innovation as a technique or function

Reflecting on the correspondence I have received after my previous post and recent training sessions with manufacturers, I realize that people are looking for tools and tricks to “fix” innovation. Sometimes it is actually not even about innovation, but about making up for past decisions like not investing in technology or market development when they should have. Others think of innovation as a function, or as a management tool that can be standardized into a job description or an area of responsibility. While this is possible in some contexts, I don’t find this approach to innovation so useful in the smaller and medium sized manufacturing firms and the research/technology institution space where I am working in.

For me, innovation is firstly a value, perspective on how organizations should be. When management says “we are an innovative organization” or “we want an innovative culture” or “our reputation is that we are innovative” then we can move to tools, portfolios, tricks, and tweaks (those things that people in innovation functions must attend to). Many textbooks, articles and blog sites on innovation and technology management are then useful. Actually the challenge is to decide which of the bucketloads of advice to use, and consultants like me typically help organizations to choose a few tools and to then use them consistently and fully. I would dare to say that it is relatively easy to help companies that are already innovative to become more innovative.

The area that I am really intrigued by, are those organizations that are not innovative, or that would not describe themselves as having an innovative culture. Maybe they used to be innovative. Maybe they are innovative in some areas, but not in others. Maybe they had one or two tricks in the past that have now become old. These could be extremely competent organizations, like a research programme, a manufacturer of highly specialized industrial equipment, or an organization that simply design and manufacturers what their customers expressively tell them to make. Even if the outputs of these organizations can be described as “innovative”, these organizations themselves do not necessarily have innovative cultures that constantly are creating novel ideas, processes and markets. In my experience these organizations have technically brilliant people, but management is often not able to harness the genius, experience or creativity of their people. The main reason for this is not a lack of technique, tools or tricks. It is because of a lack of an innovative culture, leading to a lack of innovative purpose. These organizations are trapped. They are equipped for the past, but they are paralyzed by all the choices they have to make about the future. For management, it feels like everything that they have in place are inadequate and need equal attention, ranging from attracting staff with better (or different) qualifications to finding new markets, developing new technological capability, sorting out cash flow and capital expenditure, addressing succession planning, etc.

Improving the innovation culture of an organization is a complex issue. It is not about tasks, functions or tools, but about changing relations between people, within and beyond the boundaries of the organization.

When working with organizations that must improve their innovative culture, motivational speeches, optimistic visions of the future, etc, are not useful and could in fact deepen the crises facing management. Instruments such as scenario planning, roadmaps, foresight techniques, or interventions like starting a R&D unit, a lean exercise to reduce waste, are all addressing the wrong issues and distract management from confronting the real issue that are stifling the organization. It narrows the ability of management and specialists to scan within and beyond the organisation for opportunities that could be used to change the way people work together, think together, solve problems together. The typical employee in a manufacturing or technical environment loves solving problems, love tinkering with novelty. But often management becomes so performance or target obsessed (lean?) that they don’t tap into the latent potential of their people.

Improving the innovation culture process starts with connecting management back with their people. It starts in the present, the now, not the future scenarios, not with using innovation techniques, better analytical tools, and in most cases not with some or other management fad. It goes beyond trying to improve products, processes or business areas, beyond gaps in the management capability. It must look at the relations between people, between what people know and can do now (or in the recent past), and the potential the people see to make small improvements.

When management has the courage to decide to improve their innovative culture it starts a process that cannot be described as incremental improvement, as that sounds too directed. It is rather like a deepening, or an awakening where employees are inspired to contribute, and management is more aware what they can do to enable their employees to become more innovative on all fronts. Of course, management also face the risk that outdated management approaches that does not seek to empower employees to be creative will be exposed, and some tough decisions will have to be made.

For me the most promising approach to improving innovation in an organization is a organization development approach (not limited to design, not based on technical innovation instruments) based on complexity thinking, like our Systemic Insight approach. We are using instruments such as Sensemaker developed by Cognitive Edge to find areas for improvement, areas where relations between knowledge objects (knowledge, artificats, heuristics, etc) and people can be improved, starting from where the system is and then probing to understand what the immediate potential is for improvement. It allows people to take many small steps in parallel to improve the system and to push back the boundaries that have constrained the creativity in the organization.

In my view, building an innovation culture goes far beyond establishing or refining innovation management functions. It is a strategic issue that is initiated by top management, but that will soon spill over into every area of the organization, hence it cannot be driven from a management function like “innovation”.

Instigating innovation: Where to start

I am currently focused on strengthening the manufacturing sector. Increasingly I am speaking at meetings, events, in boardrooms and in front of post graduate students about innovation. In this more engineering-minded world people are asking me the whole time for a few tips to get innovation going.

  • “How about an idea box?”
  • “How about canvassing ideas for a new product design from our customers?”
  • “How about rewarding our engineers with a profit share if they design a new product?”

The truth is, many manufacturing enterprises, especially the smaller ones, are too sliced into specific functions. Design designs, manufacturing manufacturers, salesmen become creative about delivery dates, and accounts, well, they count costs. This hierarchy makes information flows about potential improvements, new market opportunities and some old tricks that could become useful again very difficult. The cost of coordination in these enterprises are very high. In these silo-based organizations the costs of finding information, new signals and new ideas from outside the organizations is extremely high, and in general, these organizations struggle to learn.

A second problem is that most smaller manufacturers are mainly focused on product innovation. Which does not mean being focused on knocking the socks of their customers with frequent improvements or brilliant designs. Unfortunately many of the more traditional manufacturers are focused on how to get the price down or how to sort our quality issues. Which is actually a kind of process improvement, except that it is a very narrow kind of process improvement. The challenge with this incremental approach is that you can at most only grow and develop as fast as your customers can articulate what they want. Competitors or substitutes can also upset market relations by coming up with novel solutions that an incremental approach struggles to generate.

A third problem is that innovation is only done when customers demand it. It is passive. It lives in bursts to get things right, and then it settles into a problem solving mode until a next customer makes some unreasonable demands.

What many manufacturers lack, especially those in the more traditional sectors like metals and engineering, is a focused effort by top management to build an innovative culture that is actively trying to find product, process and business model improvements. It must be focused internally, in order to constantly rethink the business and its core processes, and it must be focused externally, to what customers and competitors are doing. The really good companies are also looking beyond current markets and competitors to new technologies and how they might shape the future.

This far I have addressed a business perspective. But research organizations, technology transfer centres and industry support centres can also get trapped in a low innovation culture.

I am now working with a few industry groups and research and technology centres to find out how these organizations can move beyond “catching up” and responding to change towards anticipating what is next. It sounds really simple, but by simply mobilizing more and more people in the organization to start searching for what’s next has already yielded amazing results in a short time. Maybe I am over optimistic, but already I can sense the innovation cultures change in these organizations as more and more people become involved in searching for possibility.

A quote that is attributed to William Gibson goes “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”. Step one is get more people involved in searching for what is already here, it is just not recognized inside the firm or industry.

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