In this economic downturn there is more pressure than ever on executives to find new sources of growth, and as a result leaders are increasingly talking about innovation. In some organizations the leader may say “we need to be more innovative” or “we need to think out of the box” and stop there. While for other organizations it may become part of the year’s goals or even the organization’s mission statement. Only in a small number of cases will there be any kind of sustained effort to enhance, or build, a culture of continuous innovation.
By now everyone has probably heard of six sigma and continuous improvement, and maybe your organization has even managed to embed its principles into its culture, but very few organizations have managed to transform their cultures to support innovation in a sustainable way. For most organizations, innovation tends to be something that is left to the R&D department or that is thought of on a project basis. Some organizations create new innovation teams, but it is rare for an organization to invest in transforming their entire culture. There are many reasons for this:
- Support from top leadership is required
- Challenge: Most executive teams are focused on short-term results and transforming organizational culture is a long-term investment of financial and leadership resources.
- Challenge: This is a bigger barrier than you might think. Most organizations struggle to understand how to set innovation goals and to provide a vision for employees on how they might get there. Goals to ‘be innovative’ or ‘think outside the box’ are not specific enough to be successful.
- Challenge: The starting place, needs and barriers to building a culture of continuous innovation are different for every organization – making easy implementation of best practices impossible
- Challenge: People in different parts of the organization use different terminology, methodologies, frameworks, and have different understandings of what innovation is. The lack of a shared vocabulary prevents organizations from achieving shared success.
- Challenge: Building a culture of continuous innovation threatens the power base of a critical few, and disrupts the way people think about their jobs and the organization. Even if change is for the better, people tend to want to avoid change.
- Challenge: This means pulling employees off of their day jobs or hiring consultants to commit to the leadership and communications surrounding the change effort. This investment may prove challenging in the current economic climate.
- Challenge: Organizations seeking to create a culture of continuous innovation must realize that the transformation will not happen overnight. People can only absorb so much change at once. The transformation will likely have to be broken up into separate phases with discreet goals (don’t try to do it all at once).
- Make sure to stop and share the successes of each phase, and also to identify what you’ve learned that can be implemented in the next phase.
- Challenge: Often people withdraw and choose not to participate in organizational transformations because they don’t believe that their participation will positively impact their daily lives. If those who choose to participate don’t see an impact from their early efforts, might choose to disengage as the process continues.
- You must celebrate participation and highlight the impact of individual contributors throughout the process.
- Challenge: To innovate continuously, you need to be open to receiving great ideas from anywhere in the company, and must have systems and processes to manage idea gathering, evaluation, and development. Often this requires a financial and personnel investment.
- Challenge: You have to bring the change to life for employees. This requires involvement of employees early and often in the communications surrounding the goals and outcomes of the cultural transformation
- Create a story that is easy and fun to tell – this will make it easier to cascade the change downwards through the organization
This should give you a better idea of why very few organizations embark upon the difficult work to enhance or create a culture of continuous innovation. It may not be an easy or a short journey, but building a culture of continuous innovation is the only way to increase your chances of avoiding organizational mortality.
Successfully building a strong culture of continuous innovation also represents a huge opportunity for an organization to attract the best talent, to lower costs, to continuously add new revenue streams, and to better achieve competitive separation.
Is your organization ready to invest the hard work towards achieving the rewards of a culture of continuous innovation?
Braden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, embeds innovation across the organization with innovation training, and builds B2B pull marketing strategies that drive increased revenue, visibility and inbound sales leads. He is the creator of the Nine Innovation Roles Group Diagnostic Tool and author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. He tweets from @innovate.