Should you REFIT your culture for innovation?


Dr. Shalini Lal- Let’s face it. Most of our workplaces are anything but innovative.

If you are like most—your objectives were set a few months ago. You know the metrics you will be evaluated on, and for the most part, you simply have to get on with these.

And sure—there may be the occasional team meeting on improvements. But for the most part, you and your team are focused on managing your day to day operations so that work doesn’t fall apart.

So if you are like most organizations, this means that you aren’t systematically spending time thinking of what’s next.

Yet this style of working simply won’t cut it for the future.

We all know we are at the doorstep of what will be a period of great upheavals and transformation—led by the twin forces of technology and globalization. Organizations will need to build innovation into their main area of work—or face the consequences of becoming irrelevant in just a matter of a few years.

Of course, this is far easier said than done. Building innovative organizations is an art. Look around you—there are so few organizations that are able to come up with new ideas for their customers year after year.

Yet innovative organizations share 5 cultural attributes that differentiate them from others. See how you fare along these.

‘R’ for Risk-Taking. Does your organization take at least moderate risks regularly?

There is some risk involved the moment you move into a world of uncertainty. Uncertainty means that the future cannot be predicted perfectly. And organizations (and people) vary a great deal in their levels of comfort with risk and uncertainty.

Look around you. How does your organization respond to risk? Do you regularly run experiments that are geared to testing the potential of new ideas? Or do most teams stay within the boundaries of the safe, tried and tested processes? Being able to take risks is not really about being reckless—it is about knowing how to approach an idea whose response is uncertain and test that out.

Fortunately, there are ways to do this without putting your team’s deliverable in any danger. Running pilots and testing ideas on a small scale is a great way to take risks that are manageable.

‘E’ is for Empowerment. Do you feel you have the capability to do your job and the space to make decisions?

Empowerment is about two things—having the knowledge/skills to do something and then having space to it. Think about how empowered people in your organization are.

For instance—do you need to check back with your manager each time you think of doing something a little different? Does your organization value obedience over innovative thinking? How do leaders respond to people who use their own judgment—is it appreciated or is it discouraged?

Now organizations vary a great deal on this. There are organizations that pride themselves on developing people and giving them space, while there are others who believe that the key to running a tight ship is to manage every little detail. Not surprisingly empowerment is positively correlated with a culture of innovation.

A great way to build empowerment in your team is to ensure that people have the knowledge and skills they need to do a job, next set high standards for them that enable them to reach far and beyond, and then finally to simply get out of their way.

‘F’ is for the Free-flow of ideas. Are there forums where teams can sit down and genuinely exchange ideas around a topic?

The most adaptive organizations are able to tap into ideas and information held by many people in many different teams.  Did you know that one of the strongest influencers of whether your organization will be responsive to a changing world or not is whether it is able to understand the many ways in which the world is changing in the first place. And one way to collect this information is by inviting people to share what they know.

Sadly, this doesn’t just happen on its own. It needs organizational thoughtfulness. Unless people are invited to share ideas informal forums set up to invite such discussions, information quickly gets lost within the organization.

This is actually not hard. It simply means creating forums that bring people together and invite them to share observations around what is changing or ideas around what may lie ahead.

This may be as simple as a fortnightly brainstorming session. You may need to prepare ways to invite people to share ideas, record them and to circle back and let them know how their ideas were used. Simply fitting these into meetings into the rhythm of your work will set the ground for innovation.

‘I’ is for Initiative. Are you valued for initiative or obedience?

Now, most organizations today do value both, but there is a whole range within.

There are the (now increasingly rare) organizations that almost solely rely on obedience, allowing only a handful of very trusted employees the space to propose improvements and initiative. These may be great at managing efficiency and scale—but fail miserably when developing new ideas.

Then there are other fairly progressive workplaces, that stifle initiative in another way—the dreaded organizational bureaucracy. If it is really difficult for people to do anything new—for instance if they need to get multiple levels of approval or convince many rather uninterested stakeholders—the initiative will simply vanish.

Encouraging initiative does not need to be difficult. It is about giving people the space to work on new ideas that they are capable of. When you appreciate initiative in a team meeting you build a culture where initiative is rewarding.

‘T’ is for Teamwork. Has your organization mastered the art of the team?

It turns out that the unit of innovation in most innovative organizations is the team, NOT the individual. Today’s problems are too multi-dimensional to be solved regularly by the solo talented individual. They need effective teamwork.

But not all organizations have mastered the art of the team—or know how to use teams well.

The reality is—teams don’t just become effective on their own.

They need to be designed in a certain way to be effective. A few years ago, Google studied 180 of its teams to understand what differentiated the most impactful teams from the rest and found 5 defining characteristics in this study. Called Project Aristotle—this has some very valuable learnings for all of us.

The presence of psychological safety, high standards of excellence, and meaningful work are each important in building teams that have the capability of doing the work of innovation.

Should you REFIT your culture?

With the fourth industrial revolution, we are entering a time where the ability to be continuously innovative will be THE key differentiator between the organizations who will make it and those who won’t.

And being continuously innovative needs a culture that supports the development of new ideas. It also needs an innovation strategy, and innovation processes, and funds. Each of these is very very critical.

Yet without a culture to support innovation—an innovation strategy is simply words on paper.

This is why culture is often regarded as the ultimate competitive advantage.

So look around you—and see if you need to REFIT the culture around you.

References: Project Aristotle at Google—Read more at “What Google Learnt From Its Quest to Build a Perfect Team”, NY Times, Feb 25, 2016. “Cultures that support product innovation processes”, The Academy of Management Executive, Aug 2002.


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