Culture Creator = Sustainable Innovation

culture-creator-sustainable-innovationWhen playing the role of culture creator, the leader’s primary task is to ensure the spirit of the innovation process is understood, celebrated, and aligned with the strategy of the organization.

The importance of fostering beliefs and behaviors that encourage innovation within your team and organization cannot be overstated. As products, technologies, business models become commodities over time, your corporate culture can become the source of reinvention and your only enduring competitive advantage.

“The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening.”   Edgar Schein

Ten Ways to Begin Shifting the Culture 

It is often said, “the soft stuff is the hard stuff.” All of the best innovation tools and practices can be available, but ultimately, people have to want to use them. Getting to a place where courage, creativity, and collaboration is the norm for addressing problems or pursuing opportunities can be difficult. And the costs are real. With a resistant culture, getting new ideas to stick is like trying to nail Jello to a wall – frustrating, messy, and non-productive!

Many innovation leaders are hired into their roles precisely because the culture has become bureaucratic or toxic and everyone knows it.  How does a leader become a culture creator, who can transform a culture that inhibits innovation into one that helps it flourish?

A few of the early steps in playing the role of culture creator as a change agent include:

  1. Clarify your definition and expectations regarding innovation for your team. Help people see how innovation connects to what they do and how they do it.
  2. Be a role model, and act in ways that promote a safe, trusting, and collaborative environment.
  3. Provide training for your team to establish a common language, concepts, and practices for innovation.
  4. Encourage forward-looking curiosity.
  5. Be open to new ideas, even if they might cannibalize existing products and services.
  6. Provide the time, tools, and resources your team needs to successfully innovate
  7. Recognize risk-taking and failure is part of the innovation process.
  8. Monitor innovation activity and find ways to publicly celebrate the accomplishments of your team members.
  9. Tell inspiring stories and use symbols to reinforce the importance of innovation to your particular business. Make innovation compelling, both from a business perspective and from the personal viewpoint of individual innovators.
  10. Assess the current culture and level of innovation within the team through interviews, group discussions and/or a survey.  Work with the team to develop an improvement plan.

Corporate culture is largely formed based on success.  Things that work tend to get repeated.  They become “the way we do things around here”. As the dominant arbiter of success on a day-to-day basis for most employees, leaders play the most significant role in fostering a culture of innovation. The ten recommendations focus on creating a positive experience for people engaged in innovation, so they start to believe their ideas matter, and they begin to behave in ways that facilitate ingenuity and initiative. With consistent reinforcement from the leader, the team’s confidence growths as do the roots of the culture.  The team starts seeing itself as innovative, and the mindset and successful practices are taught to the new people with pride and enthusiasm.

As a culture creator, you are the author of the unwritten rules that influence people’s behavior. The ones responsible for promoting an environment of entrepreneurial spirit and empowering teams to break the rules if breakthrough thinking is needed.  To the degree you embrace this role, your corporate culture will act as rocket fuel to your innovation efforts or become your team’s Achilles heel.

Create Your Unique Innovative Culture

It can help to link your innovation culture to your overall company culture. For example, when she was CEO of HP, Carly Fiorina linked their innovation culture to the founding values of the company, through the “Rules of the Garage.” The rules were written across a photo of the one-car Palo Alto garage where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard first began the company.

Fiorina described her intent as a culture creator: “We have tried to capture the spirit of the original HP in what we call the Rules of the Garage. The garage is a special place for us. It represents that entrepreneurial, inventive spirit that is special about HP. The reason we wrote them down was to remind ourselves that this is what this place used to be about, it’s what this place always needs to be about. Those soft things, those things that represent the soul and the spirit of the place, in the end, those are in many cases the most sustainable competitive advantage that you have.”

HP’s Rules of the Garage include:

  • Believe you can change the world.
  • Work quickly, keep the tools unlocked, work whenever possible.
  • Know when to work alone and when to work together.
  • Share tools, ideas. Trust your colleagues.
  • No politics. No bureaucracy. (These are ridiculous in a garage.)
  • The customer defines a job well done.
  • Radical ideas are not bad ideas.
  • Invent different ways of working.
  • Make a contribution every day.
  • If it doesn’t contribute, it doesn’t leave the garage.
  • Believe that together we can do anything.

With market pressures demanding corporate cultures become more adaptive and collaborative, the organization will look for a role model who is passionate and has the inner drive to move innovation forward. To learn more about the culture creator role as well as the other innovation, leadership roles, download the entire chapter of Leading Innovation Ten Essential Roles for Harnessing the Creative Talent of Your Enterprise.

This blog post is part of the Leading Innovation series authored by Laszlo Gyorffy, MS. Laszlo is president of the Enterprise Development Group, an international consulting firm specializing in business strategy and innovation. He also is an accomplished speaker, certified instructional designer and trainer, and co-author of Creating Value with CO-STAR: An Innovation Tool for Perfecting and Pitching your Brilliant Ideas and The Global Innovation Science Handbook. Laszlo recently developed the One Hour Innovator a cloud-based toolkit that teaches people how to successfully generate and champion bigger, bolder, and better ideas.

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