by Drew Marshall
“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”
- Jimmy Dean
One of the greater challenges facing organizations that willingly seek to improve their innovation performance is “where to start?” Product development managers, research directors, marketing and brand specialists all face the similar, daunting prospect of wrestling their organizations into adopting new patterns and behaviors. For anyone who has been involved in change management, undertaking this kind of program is considered long and hard, because the duration of these efforts is counted not in days, weeks, or months, but in years.
In the present economic circumstances, we can’t wait that long to get our innovation engines firing. At a time like this, innovation cannot be relegated to an isolated part of the enterprise. How might we ready our organizations to embrace innovation as a practice in all areas?
Recognizing the Signs
“When men think and believe in one set of symbols and act in ways which are contrary to their professed and conscious ideas, confusion and insincerity are bound to result.”
- John Dewey
At its essence, an organization’s culture is composed of many different elements, all of which point towards accepted behaviors and commonly held expectations. Organization symbols such as organizational layout, organizational landscape, or organizational dress are a direct manifestation of an organization’s culture, and they are experienced as real; their impact has significant organizational consequences. Each symbol is a sign of what is and isn’t acceptable to the organization, and the symbols are powerful indicators of organizational dynamics that are not necessarily easily changed, contrary to what you might think.
Consider your organization’s headquarters, a symbolic place on multiple levels. It represents the “heart” of the organization, a symbolic stage on which the day unfolds. It is also a container of symbols—the art on the wall or the layout of different functional departments—each having a series of layered meanings about what your organization deems important or even relevant. In this view, the notion of a symbol is not merely a backdrop against which organizational action happens. Rather, “place” is a system of environmental experiences that incorporates the personal, social, and cultural aspects of activity within an environment.
What do people see when they arrive at your building for the first time? Is there a friendly receptionist? Is there a phone on the wall and a series of codes to be dialed? When you arrive, do you enter the same way as customers or visitors, or do you enter by a separate employee-only entrance? Each of these elements says much about your organization, what it values, how it operates. But I would bet that you pay it little attention. Correct?
Objects and organizational landscapes are powerful indicators of social and cultural meaning, rather than simply arbitrary signs. Basic psychological research supports the idea of symbols as an unconscious form of communication: in the 1990s, work in this area suggested that a person’s motivations and goals may be triggered directly by their environment. The experience of symbols is a form of communication with verbal or conscious intervention.
What is your organization unwittingly saying about itself? Examine important organization symbols as sources of power and influence that may be co-opted in order to prime the innovation pump. What should you look for?
Finding the Pivot Points
“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
- Woodrow Wilson
Before you change any symbols, be sure you understand as much of their complete meaning as possible. For example, a new and eager employee in an architecture firm noticed during her first week that every now and then, a ship’s bell was rung in the middle of the open plan floor. She asked what it was all about, and was told that the bell was rung when the firm won a new account or a new piece of business was signed. She heard it a lot during her first weeks at the firm, but about a month into her tenure, the bell stopped ringing. She worried. It was only when she asked why the bell hadn’t rung for the last couple of months that she was told the firm had so much new business, the leadership had decided to not pitch for any more in the current year. Suddenly the bell’s silence was no longer ominous, it was a symbol of the organization’s outstanding success.
Much relieved, the employee quietly let slip that she no longer feared for her job. The long-term employees around her were horrified: they understood how the bell was used, but hadn’t realized the lack of it ringing could have such a profoundly negative effect. Symbols matter, but their meaning may not be universal.
Marketing collateral, annual reports, and other formal organizational communication rely on symbols to communicate to both insiders and outsiders. But for all of the structure applied to them, they may not carry the same meaning for their different audiences. Think of BP’s logo. What it stands for inside the company and what it stands for in the community at large may vary quite a bit, especially after the recent gulf oil catastrophe. The impact of that one symbol, the logo, is so profound that independently owned BP-branded gas stations have seen 15 to 40 percent drop-offs in customer traffic. Their owners are now looking to resurrect a past symbol—the Amoco brand torch logo—in an attempt to help customers rethink their gas (petrol) purchase choices.
If we attempt to accelerate the growth of a culture of innovation in an organization, we have to be clear about the symbols at play, and which ones we might choose to modify in order to influence the behaviors we desire. Answers to the following questions may be helpful in assessing what matters most: How is meaning generated? What do people find meaningful about the work they are doing? How are they connected to the whole enterprise? How do they sense it, feel it, know it?
Only with answers to questions like these should we seek to leverage change across the organization.
“When you combine ignorance and leverage, you get some pretty interesting results.”
- Warren Buffett
Organizational symbols provide a way for members to understand the identities and values that come along with a major organizational change. More broadly, symbols—as the physical manifestations of organizational life—help organizational members and observers integrate their experiences into coherent systems of meaning. The physical environment helps people encountering the organization make sense of it as a coherent whole. They key is not to contradict those symbols, but to adapt and shift them so that they influence the new behaviors you seek. Whether it is customers’ needs identification, idea generation, or effective commercialization, the symbols you employ will speak volumes about what you intend for them to understand and do.
To use symbols to leverage the practice of innovation in organizations, we must carefully modify them to enhance and promote the necessary behaviors. Because they reflect implicit and tacit aspects of culture by generating emotional responses from organizational members and representing organizational values and assumptions, symbols can rapidly galvanize an organization’s members. In an organization that seeks to promote cross-functional collaboration, what happens when the physical layout of the organization is changed so that cross-functional teams and groups are seated together? What happens if they are co-located around open areas for collaboration? Changing where people sit may have a profound effect on their behavior.
Where in the organization are there already existing symbols of innovation? How might you take what is already working well to influence the behavior of the wider organization membership?
Symbols elicit internalized norms of behavior, linking members’ emotional responses and interpretations to organizational action. They frame experience, allowing organizational members to communicate about vague, controversial, or uncomfortable organizational issues. And they integrate the entire organization in one system of signification. If you make innovation significant, then you have to make its significance apparent, otherwise the path to success will be unclear and little traveled.
Andrew [Drew] Marshall is the Principal of Primed Associates, LLC, a consulting firm based in Princeton Junction, New Jersey focused on improving the culture of innovation within their clients.