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  • Writer's pictureGregory Wade

Cultivating An Innovation Culture

A decade ago, cultivating a culture of innovation was a "nice to do" action. Today it is a "must do" subject for organizations seeking to ensure their longevity and relevance. 

Why? As a leader, what do I do to ensure my organization or company evolves?

Know what an innovation culture is, and why it is essential to work on enhancing it. Culture pertains to the values, unspoken principles and subtle clues that guide peoples' behavior and indicates how they need to act in your work environment. 

Before you begin attempting to improve your culture, you should first determine what behaviors your organization genuinely rewards and encourages. Then ask: is this the kind of behavior that can assist us in fulfilling the goals we've set and the marketplace challenges we face? My strong suggestion is that direction must spell out the behaviors you need more of, and engage people exhibiting them and reward them in every manner. Reward the supervisor who e-mails the CEO a troubling story from the front-line in which your product was no longer competitive. Compliment the millennial employee who speaks up in a Town Hall Meeting and asks a premise challenging question. 

Laud the salesperson that rents the truck and drives throughout the night to personally deliver the client's order following a snafu. Reward the admin assistant who contributes creative ideas to your innovation portal. Share stories that illustrate the desired behaviors, and make these individuals heroes. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. Put someone in charge of cultivating the culture and establish an Innovation Council. 

Studies by Booz & Company show that companies with "highly aligned innovation strategies and highly aligned cultures generate 30 percent higher enterprise value growth and 17 percent profit growth". All good and well, but in the majority of businesses, nobody is responsible for producing and maintaining an innovation culture, even less in aligning it with the business' strategy. 

There are so many things a company may do for itself, but understanding a culture's weaknesses and strengths generally isn't one of them. "There's a rumor around here that we punished someone for failure", said the division manager of a major chipmaker. "But we do not have a clue what they are speaking about". Surveying employee engagement has become commonplace over the past few years, but a workforce can be hired and still be anti-innovation and risk-averse. 

Instead, periodically evaluate the climate for innovation. Pulse surveys empower you to objectively evaluate such cultural fundamentals as: the level of trust people feel towards each other along with towards management, amount of collaboration between functions along with silos, receptivity to new ideas and resource availability. Leverage these insights, experiences and hero behavior to encourage innovation and avoid the pitfalls that come from denial, busyness, and bureaucracy.

Culture is heavily affected by a company's direction but when a disruptor enters the market, the organization will often dismiss it or deny its presence until it turns into a full-blown crisis. By then it might be too late. Unless you are working continuously to improve your culture, it will be unavoidable to veer toward the types of behavior that the Nokias, BlackBerrys, Blockbusters and Kodaks revealed.

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