Check Yourself: Is Your Company Culture Innovation Ready?

Claiming innovation as an organizational trait is vastly different than creating an environment where innovation can flourish.  Companies with the best of intentions and resources, still have to confront the often nuanced and complex cultural inhibitors to change. Innovation transformation is an inevitably messy endeavor, plagued by uncertainty , doubt and failure.  And while many companies aspire to be more innovative, few are willing to do the difficult, often humbling work, required to support change. 

As a consultant, my work is varied in scope and in context but it almost always involves a discovery phase.   During this time I learn about the state of a business and it’s relative market through research and stakeholder conversations.  And whether articulated or not, innovation is often at the heart of these engagements.  Clients are either looking to become more wholly innovative organizations or they’re looking to partners to inspire “bigger” thinking around specific programs, products or segments.  And while business and customer insights are the expected outcome, the discovery process, particularly the interview portion, will almost always expose the matrix of cultural and psychological dynamics that surround a scope of work.  For context and clarity, it's important to note that most of my experience is with established, Fortune 1000 clients.  These are hugely successful enterprises whose products, services and models also happen to be under serious threat - often by much smaller, more agile competitors who have innovation in their very immediate DNA.  This presents an interesting dichotomy of arrogance and panic - neither of which are traits that are particularly conducive to change.

In my often very candid conversations with employees, it's typical to hear the same issues articulated over and over again - not just within an organization but across clients.  And in most cases, these aren’t just a bunch of disgruntled employees with bones to pick, but passionate, hard working people who desperately want to see their companies progress.  If there is a perception gap, it usually exists between the C-Suite and, well, everybody else.

Rarely though, have I seen clients acknowledge the relationship between these dynamics and the organization’s ability to actualize change.  At best, the observations are noted, but tabled as disparate issues from the task at hand. Management still fully expects big, new ideas to emerge from old frameworks and paradigms.  And as long as we can achieve marginal success, well, that's often enough of a reason to keep doing things the way they've always been done. At least for now.

It turns out, these challenges aren't merely anecdotal. From IBM to MIT, research consistently cites culture as a significant factor in innovation success. And former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner went as far as to characterize culture as "everything" to an organization's capacity for transformation.  

We can all agree that innovation is vital. But for most organizations, innovation isn't the problem.  Culture, and the people, systems and policies that bring it to life, are innovation's most potent enablers (or antidotes).  

So before tackling innovation and imagining all of it's outcomes, get familiar with your organizational ego.  The good, bad and ugly of who you are, why you exist, what you aspire to and what you fear - from the top down, the bottom up and everywhere in between.  Build from that awareness a deliberate culture that promotes discovery, diversity, audacity and collaboration.  Commit to fixing what isn't working no matter how seemingly insignificant or impossible.  And remove the bureaucracy that blocks employees from finding and acting on smart solutions.  So that in the end, you give the next big idea, the chance it deserves. 

Laura CiociaComment