Which comes first? – Innovation success or culture?

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation success or cultureMany strategic challenges have a “chicken or egg” quandary. In the case of the chicke and the egg, which comes first? Clearly you can’t have a chicken if the chicken didn’t come from an egg. But you can’t have an egg if it didn’t come from a chicken. Quite a conundrum. Ranks up there with Schrodinger’s cat and other notable thought experiments.

The chicken and egg question has parallels in innovation, especially when firms consider how to get started. The dilemma the firms face is: do we work on creating an innovation culture before attempting innovation, or do we start with smaller, more tactical innovation activities that will allow us to build up innovation knowledge and experience that can be transferred to the culture? Here’s a couple of things to ponder while considering the tradeoffs.

First, anyone, anywhere can brainstorm or generate ideas. That does not make them “innovative” and one brainstorm is not necessarily repeatable or sustainable. However, that may be the best first step for many firms, only comfortable with small, trial steps. However, what many firms find once they’ve generated ideas is that there is no sustaining process or procedure for managing ideas, and the “day job” is more compelling. Cultural roadblocks often stymie further pursuit of ideas.

Second, building a culture is hard, but changing a culture is very difficult. In any existing firm, there are norms and expectations that have been built over time and reinforced in the way people work and how they are compensated. Changing a firm’s culture does not happen overnight, and many executives recognize this. So, there’s yet another rationale for trying a “quick and dirty” innovation project rather than trying to implement longer term change.

Third, building a culture of innovation requires a vision. You can’t simply wave a wand and expect the culture to change – it can change, but it must change based on some shared concepts and vision. Executives have to define a very clear rationale for the change and present the end state. This requires commitment and good communication skills over a long period of time. Again, since we manage today with a stopwatch rather than a calendar, time is of the essence, and quick wins are preferred to methodical changes.

innovation roadblockSo, in many cases we are left with two alternatives, neither of which seem to have positive outcomes. On one hand a firm can innovate with small projects and programs and attempt to overcome cultural issues as they arise. Often they will find that the culture doesn’t reward people who take risks and who propose programs that are different from the status quo. On the other hand, a firm can start working on the culture and begin changing the expectations before launching innovation programs, but this is time consuming and most executives don’t have the patience for such efforts.

Probably the best approach is to run the changes in parallel. Start working on cultural change while enacting a series of small innovation programs. Build on the successes and use any failures as opportunities to reinforce the cultural change. Expect that any effort to change the culture will take several years. However, if you can successfully influence the culture, the innovation possibilities are incredible. Culture is the biggest roadblock to innovation, but once overcome, it can be the stimulus and propulsion for innovation.

In the case of innovation activities versus innovation culture, don’t think of these as tradeoffs but as activities that should, probably must, be done simultaneously if you want to build a long term, successful innovation capability.

Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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