How to bring an innovation culture to life

One of the biggest challenges for leaders of today is how they can make sure innovation happens on an ongoing basis, beyond the occasional ideation sessions and hackathons.

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April 4, 2019
New York

According to the Financial Times, 2019 is set to be a turbulent year for world’s biggest companies. A perfect storm of political, social and economic upheavals seem to be brewing at the very moment when companies need to be investing in technologies to respond to disruption. It is always unfortunate when socio-economic challenges emerge because the tendency for leaders is to divest from innovation and focus on preserving their core business.

One the biggest challenges contemporary leaders face is that innovation as a cultural practice is yet to take hold inside their companies. Indeed, the most common complaint I hear from leaders is that their companies lack a culture of innovation. Leaders understand that having such a culture in their companies would embed innovation and allow it to be an ongoing process regardless of changes in the outside world. In fact, a culture of innovation would help the company be more responsive to these changes.

The critical question for leaders is how to bring such a culture to life. Beyond occasional ideation sessions and hackathons, how do we make sure innovation happens in our companies on an ongoing basis. A key lesson I have learned is that a company cannot create an innovation culture without making it tangible.

Artefacts And Rituals

Every culture has its artifacts, rituals and practices. These tangible tools are often an expression of the philosophical beliefs that underlie the culture. The artifacts and rituals are put in place to support the behaviors and practices that are the manifestation of the philosophy and beliefs of the culture. Without these artifacts and rituals, the philosophy would remain abstract.

Most companies have not adopted innovation artifacts, rituals and practices. Instead, they have artifacts and rituals for running their core business - and they often mistakenly apply these to managing innovation. Indeed, the artifacts and rituals for running the core business are so pervasive that we take them for granted. Over time our organizational memories have forgotten that these artifacts and rituals are expressions of a worldview that no longer holds true today.

Let’s take business planning as an example. Most leaders will not release investments for innovation unless they are presented with a business case that has good five year revenue projections. This artifact and the resulting rituals of PowerPoint presentations and budget allocations are all based on a view of innovation as a linear process. First, we make the plan - then we execute on the plan.

Such a view of innovation is flawed. While linear planning and execution might work for some parts of the core business, it will lead to failure if it is applied to innovation. Innovation is a non-linear process that involves searching for the right value propositions for customers and profitable business models.

Bringing Innovation To Life

There has been some progress in the creation of artifacts and rituals for innovators to use. Design thinking, business model design, agile and lean startup have also provided us with a great toolbox for innovation. A lot of these artifacts are visual and allow for flexibility and cross-functional collaboration.

What is of concern is that corporate leaders are not yet fully aware of the cultural meaning of the artifacts they see innovators use. There is not yet a realization that these artifacts represent a paradigm shift and a change in management philosophy. Having leaders understand this and gain their support is critical for sustaining innovation in our companies.

Beyond that, we have to make leading innovation tangible for leaders. As practitioners and thinkers, we have not yet developed tools for managers to lead innovation. Our leaders are still using tools from the 19th century to make 21st century decisions on innovation projects. There is a significant mismatch - which often leads to misunderstanding and frustration.

With the challenges that companies will face in 2019, we have to provide leaders with the right tools so that innovation is not treated as sideshow. As Buckminster Fuller once said, “If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don't bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”

This piece was first published on Forbes.

Guest contributor Tendayi Viki
Guest contributor Tendayi Viki
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April 4, 2019
New York