3 Key Components of an Innovation Culture
by Jeffrey Phillips
Good 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.