Don't Dictate a Culture of Innovation – Influence It!

by Cris Beswick

Don't Dictate a Culture of Innovation - Influence It!You may be familiar with the classic children’s tale about a family going on a bear hunt. Along the way they encounter many potential hazards, all of which they overcome by cheerfully ploughing through regardless. But when they meet the bear they have no answer but to turn and run for home.

I often think that the way in which many organisations set off to meet the innovation challenge is strikingly similar to this children’s tale. The declaration of intent, the setting off on a route with no idea of what lies ahead, no planning and no thought, a few brief forays which seem to be getting somewhere and then when the true nature of the task becomes apparent the swift retreat into ‘business as usual’.

But whilst the family can resolve to refrain from bear hunting in future, organisations don’t have the same luxury when it comes to innovation. Innovation is a 21st Century imperative and organisations, which fail to innovate, will suffer or even perish. So my challenge to CEO’s is simply this. Get with it! Take ownership of the innovation challenge, plan it, map it, drive its implementation and influence the culture until innovation infuses your entire organisation.

The first step is to accept that you can’t dictate a culture of innovation, you have to influence it. And this means creating the culture and the conditions for innovation to take hold. And that culture will invariably be a different one than currently exists within your organisation.

Wikipedia defines culture as:

The set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes an institution, organisation or group.

The problem is ‘culture’ is a bit soft for most senior leaders and CEO’s to get their head around because you can’t lay your hands on culture, you can’t touch it. But, you can feel it so use a different sense and start to look at behaviours and how they inhibit or drive innovation. And the starting point is something, which leaders do understand and that is strategy. Just like any other business critical element such as sales, marketing or recruitment, innovation needs structure; it needs a plan; so the first step is to set about building an innovation strategy that’s aligned to your growth strategy.

Pitfall number one is to assume that you can simply copy the model, the innovation strategy that someone else has adopted. Your ‘culture of innovation’ is going to be the one thing, which differentiates you from the opposition, and simply copying others won’t give you a unique edge and certainly won’t work in terms of your company culture, as it’s likely not to fit. The culture you get is a by-product of the behaviours you collectively display so you need to be absolutely sure about the specific behaviours that will result in innovation success. Of course there are common denominators across all businesses and that’s one of the things I help clients work on but it’s the nuances that are specific to your organisation, your culture, that make it unique and that’s where you derive differentiation from. In effect, if you want to drive innovation make sure that in your innovation strategy you’ve fully understood the attitudes, values, goals and practices that will uniquely drive innovation inside ‘your’ organisation.

Pitfall number two is to become disheartened at the amount of effort required to turn the culture around in pursuit of innovation, especially from the employee perspective. So, The best way to overcome this is to seek to deliver some quick wins as a result of the changes you’ve put in place. Success breeds success and behaviour starts to define behaviour so communicating innovation successes encourages the innovation mentality across the organisation.

Pitfall number three is to set off without an understanding of your starting point or how your journey is going. Benchmarking the start, measuring innovation as part of the strategy and including innovation metrics, as part of your performance reviews is vital if you are to succeed in your journey.  And no-one should be exempt from this; even the CEO should be measured against performance and value delivered through innovation.

It’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive may make the basis of a good tale for children but it doesn’t cut any ice when moving to an innovation culture. The key for CEO’s and senior teams is to map out where you are, where you want to get to and the required journey along the way. Once the behaviours for the journey are defined, you and everyone in the organisation can map and measure progress along the way on an individual, team, department and organisation-wide level. When you have clarity like that you only need to influence, there’s no need to dictate. And as history shows us, dictators don’t last that long anyway!

Everyone says they want or even need to innovate but few actually do. If you want to be one of the few and you’ve got a question? Ask me…

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Cris Beswick is a strategic advisor on innovation and author. He is also the author of The Road to Innovation, and featured on BBC radio and TV. He is also a contributor for The Times, Financial Times, The Independent, CEO Magazine, Director Magazine, HR Magazine and The Sunday Telegraph. @CrisBeswick