3 Key Components of an Innovation Culture

by Jeffrey Phillips

3 Key Components of an Innovation CultureGood artists borrow and great artists steal. Today I am a great artist, and stealing from another.

At a recent speaking engagement which I attended virtually through a Twitter stream, Rob Shelton described an innovation culture as being made of vision and metrics and motivation. I thought this was an excellent summation of the attributes of an innovation culture, and I’d like to tell you why. I’ll also tell you one other component I’m sure Rob talked about but isn’t explicitly in this list.

Even the order of the attributes is important. Vision is first. Vision in this definition describes some strategic goal for the organization that can be linked to innovation. This is where many firms fall down. Vision is such an ephemeral thing that we often skip right past it. Then we are left using innovation as a one time tool, rather than an ongoing capability. And as we’ve discussed here before, innovation is simply too risky and too uncertain to do well once. To define an innovation culture, you need an overarching strategic vision that is then linked to innovation goals and outcomes. No vision, no innovation culture. And if you can’t get your management team to document a vision, create and publish one of your own. The absence of a vision from above does not excuse the absence of an innovation vision and strategy at your team level.

I’d argue that in precedence order motivation comes next, and I’d describe motivation as composed of what people WANT to do, what they are COMPENSATED to do and what they’ll eventually be EVALUATED on. Note that these can be very different. I may want to innovate, but I am compensated based on the evaluations I achieve doing my regular job, creating a significant conflict. Part-time innovators are very familiar with this dilemma. They want to innovate, but their advancement and pay is based on the work they do in their “day jobs”, not the work they do in innovation. This is often very de-motivating.

Rob’s last attribute was metrics. We all know the old saw “what gets measured gets managed” and innovation, for it to become the consistent process we want it to be, needs to be quantifiable at some level and demonstrate regular, measurable results. I’ll argue that in the early stages of innovation we need different measures and metrics than we’d use in more traditional projects, but also that eventually we need to demonstrate a measurable return on the investment.

So, if I can create a consistent, sustained vision for innovation that links to strategic goals, and appropriately motivate my teams to innovate, understanding their need for clarity around compensation and evaluation, and I apply the appropriate measures and metrics, will I be able to create an innovation culture? You are certainly on your way, but there are two other things that are necessary. The first is simple. Can you sustain this effort for more than a quarter? Culture is created over time – you can’t wish it into existence in a matter of a few weeks. So a sustained commitment is important.

The second item is the one I wish Rob had included explicitly, and that is communication. While most employees in most firms feel inundated with messages from their management teams, I honestly believe you can’t communicate enough about innovation. Here’s why: innovation is risky and uncertain and ambiguous. People don’t like to work in those conditions. To lessen these issues, clear, consistent communication helps tremendously. Hearing the messages from the executive team, and the everyday management team, that innovation is important, sustains the team and reduces the ambiguity. Seeing the work rewarded, publicly, helps sustain that communication channel.

Your firm needs a culture that encourages innovation at the least, embraces innovation at best. Examine the aspects that Rob noted and I have detailed. Which one of these attributes is missing from your culture? Start with the most strategic – vision and strategy, and work your way through motivation and metrics. Once those are defined effectively, start communicating and sustain the effort. Your culture will shift, slowly at first, more quickly over time, to a much more eager embrace of innovation.

Pipeline 2010Editor’s Note: The event Jeffrey refers to is called Pipeline 2010, a free online event that took place November 10, 2010. The video sessions (including my closing ‘Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire’ keynote) are still available for FREE for 90 days after the event. Register here to watch them.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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  1. I am going to oppose this view, because I think it smacks still of industrial age leadership style, command and control. These 3 and 4 things are no different to how most change programmes are led in most corporations and why most fail to realise their potential or be transformational. I propose that innovation culture is built in an entirely different way.

    Communication: I think instead of the commander’s vision and way communicated from the central control room “above” as a decree, a sustainable innovation “culture”, as opposed to “veneer” is built through stories from the edges where the innovation takes place, that travel upwards, and distilled by the leaders for their “essence” of what is significant, and these edge stories are retold by leaders who place the emphasis not on their own vision, but the actions and behaviours of the heroes at the edge that are actually innovating. If the leader must set a vision, it must be one that empowers play, emergence and connects to people’s passion much more than strategy. Most employees know what business their employer is in….they don’t have to be told over and over again. But they are seldom told that its ok to follow their passion and go play with something they fancy doing that may be outside the mainstream core business of today.

    Secondly: Measures. Measures kill curiosity, following your nose down interesting alleyways, play and risk-taking. If you have to guarantee measurable returns and ROI, the well-known corporate mantra, forget expecting radical innovation. You will only get safe near-plays and continuous improvement. Just about every major radical innovation we know of was emergent, and then tweaked. It wasn’t born fully formed, it was shaped over time. This lesson is best learnt by looking at start-ups.

    Motivation, yes. But which motivators? I’d substitute motivation with the word “passion”. Innovation culture does not follow in the wake of some dangled carrot or extrinsic distant and future reward, but where people are intrinsically motivated by what they love and are good at – its classic self-actualisation- the ability to put a unique mark on the world. All the better if you get to do that with your close mates, all of whom are naturally attracted to each other because there is a high degree of trust but sufficient measure of diversity of talents and gifts.

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