Fostering a Culture of Innovation

Fostering a Culture of Innovation

“We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen.” ~ Paulo Coelho

Innovation often seems to be the buzzword of the day. Used by the government and private sector alike, innovation is a catch all term used to identify both the act or process of creation, as well as the outcome of the process. Innovation has become one of the most overused  business terms of the last decade, and its permeance is not just limited to the world of commerce but extends through many aspects of technology and culture as well.

In academic literature, there is much discourse about innovation systems–the flow of information and technology among, people, enterprise and institutions as key to driving the act of innovation. How we let information flow and how that flow is facilitated by technology are key to fostering a community that is innovative. Yet, no structure can be created for innovation independent of people, companies and the institutions that support them. The social web we create around us and its many parts are as equally important as the framework we build to drive innovation.

There are two principal types of innovation,process and product innovation. Product innovation is largely driven by changes to technology. It is found in groundbreaking scientific developments, the ones that allow Elon Musk to build fast electric cards, develop rocket ships and fulfill the prophecies of science fiction writers. It can be imagined as leaps, that change paradigms within industry and take us to places we have never been before, from Mars, to nanobots inside of our bodies. It is truly the stuff of dreams.

Process innovation is different. It is largely driven by small incremental changes. It is the improvements to a process, the change in a work environment, or a new way of doing something. It depends on people and its whole is generally greater than the sum of its parts. It is built by the tacit knowledge and human capital we bring to our workplaces each day, and solidified by the relationships we develop and how ideas, information and visions are shared. It depends on people and can be imagined as steps leading upwards to a better way of working and doing things.

Each form of innovation has a role.We adopt the paradigm shifting visions, but at the end of the day, most of us depend on people and on each other,to continue innovating. Our innvoation is not found in rocket fuel, but in how effectively we are able to harness the power of our organizations and our people to collaboratively work together towards a common vision and mission.

Creating a culture of innovation is not easy. It requires bringing together very diverse people, creating a learning and work environment that is organizationally lean, transparent, and rewards risk. This is why we see so many startups being innovative. They are lean, team members work together, openly and constructively.   The risks of a start-up are enormous. Despite this, many individuals work long grueling hours for below average pay,with no benefits in order to get start-up experience.. Employees are passionate, driven and innovative.

There is a passion found at start-ups, that is hard to replicate in established organizations. Established nonprofits and companies, have a much harder time being innovative because they are established, cannot afford to take uncalculated, and unmeasured risk and have a more difficult time adjusting lean and transparent organizational systems.  THe organizations that do succeed have done so by following three principles:

  • Let it go- Just as a Disney princess can let go, so must managers let go of micro managing, documenting and measuring. Not everything needs to managed or measured, and most people given the opportunity will do their jobs. We live in a society of distrust. As managers, measuring helps us to justify that what we are doing is right. Unfortunately, innovation is difficult to measure and we need to create more  room in the work we do for the unpredicted, the spontaneous and risky. This is a terrifying concept to most large companies, but unless they can adopt this crucial first step, they will never achieve strong innovation.  
  • Learn to appreciate risk and failure- We have been conditioned to think of risk as a negative term. Failure scares us, particularly amongst those of us who are high achievers.  We need adopt an attitude that rewards risk, accepts failure as a part of learning and moves on.  Until we are prepared to accept that failure, experimentation and risk are an inherent part of success, we will never become truly innovative
  • Adopt design thinking.  We need to adopt the type of thinking processes used by artists, creators and inventors. We need to remove the boundaries and constructors of how we think innovation should occur and learn to appreciate innovation for what it really is: the coming together of minds to produce something better. Nothing is rejected until it is proved dysfunctional. All ideas are equally valuable and real innovations is built up block by block rather than identifying the formula that we think can replicate that success time and time again
  • Implement our Changes company wide- Innovation is not just one lone department in an organization. It must permeate organizational boundaries, from owners and managers, to advisory boards. All components of the organization must be willing to adopt these principles. The tools and technologies you adopt must mirror the structure or lack of structure you wish to create. So if you need leaner reporting to enable innovation, do so.
  • Develop your Community of Practice-Communities of practice was a concept developed by Etienne Wenger. They exist everywhere from manufacturing firms to tree planting camps. They are formal and informal associations that exist in the networks and relationships we build and they enable the transfer of tacit knowledge amongst community members.  Imagine an apprentice long ago. They learnt their trade from their Master, and then passed it down to their apprentices. This type of knowledge transfer existed before literacy was widespread and was built on mutual trust and understanding. This community is what shaped entire industries, and it was largely informal in nature.

As your organization begins to delve into changing its culture to become more innovative, remember that entire books have been written on this topic, but these high level guidelines will give you a way to start approaching innovation and diffuse it from an idea, to a way of being for your entire organization.  It will be hard work, but the benefits far outweigh the trials you will face.