Create a culture for innovation
Culture dominates how an organisation works, and greatly affects the opportunities that are available for innovation.
Culture in organisations, or across an entire sector, is built on many different factors: behavioural norms, policies, stories, symbols, hierarchy, power, rewards and much more. It can be difficult to articulate what a culture is, but each organisation and each sector have cultures and sub-cultures.
Peter Drucker, the famous management consultant, is believed to have said “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That is, culture dominates how an organisation works and is either the primary blocker or the primary enabler of progress. It is therefore critical to understand the culture of the organisation/s who are involved in an innovation.
“We benefited from a culture of innovation. Two of the three founders of Motivation went to design college and the third is an innovative thinker. We’re open to changing the way of doing things if necessary, the hierarchy is quite flat, and as such it’s easy to solve problems.” Sarah Sheldon, Motivation (interview)
Learn from effective practices employed elsewhere
Our research with ALNAP (Obrecht and Warner, 2016) identified a number of practices that were effective in creating a culture of innovation within the organisations that we have funded:
- Staff had space for innovative thinking, and clear platforms and opportunities to propose ideas for improvement (eg, an annual ‘innovation pitch’ event or an ongoing innovation stream to develop new ideas.)
- Senior leadership saw innovation as an opportunity to fulfil a new strategic goal or direction.
- Changes in the operational context were treated as opportunities to do things differently, providing a launch pad for innovation.
- The organisation fostered a culture that was open and positive about ideas/contributions.
- The organisation was open to trialling new ideas or concepts if they showed promise of improving practice.
- A feeling of ownership of the innovation was built up within the organisation, with support across departments.
It is worth reflecting whether your organisation has any of these attributes. If you are working on an innovation, or supporting an innovation in an established organisation, it is useful to map your organisation’s culture. Some critical questions to ask are:
- What behaviours are rewarded?
- What is the tolerance level for failure?
- How does the organisation deal with ambiguity?
- How are decisions made and who makes them?
- How inclusive and diverse is the organisation?
- What is the organisation’s appetite for risk?
- How open to collaborating with others is your organisation?
- Does your organisation suffer from a ‘not invented here’ syndrome when it comes to new ideas?
Gerry Johnson’s Culture Web is a powerful tool for developing a deep understanding of your organisation’s culture. It will help you to expose cultural assumptions and practices, and align different elements with your strategy.
Avoid self-imposed constraints
If your organisation has not have been in existence for long, you may not have many staff, policies or processes. Gerry Johnson’s culture tool (highlighted above) may therefore be of little value at this stage of your organisation’s lifecycle.
However, it is critical to think through how the decisions, policies and actions you carry out today will impact on what happens in the future. You are creating precedents and ‘path dependence’ – the scope of the options and decisions you can make in the future will be constrained by the decisions you make today.
To help counter this and ensure that your organisation retains its agility, ask the following questions whenever you are making what appears to be an important decision (Gray Dot Catalyst and Toybox):
- Did our decision address the problem/issue/opportunity effectively?
- Is there a simpler way?
- Is there a quicker way?
- Is there a cheaper way?
- Is there a more transformational way?
- Will this reduce our agility as an organisation?
- Does our decision create a precedent that we do not want to create?
- Does our decision create path dependency and limit our future options too much?