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Developing a Culture of Innovation

17 Jan 2017

When you start a new job your colleagues and boss quickly set you right on “how things are done around here” and the “boundaries” within which you need to work.

Theses cultural boundaries are defined by the beliefs of the people who work in your functional department and, in most cases, they have been established over many years. From a management perspective, the aim of these boundaries is to reduce chaos and mistakes. "Smart Management" means no drama!

In the majority of companies, the first priority of “smart” departmental managers is to deliver on his or her own metrics, no matter what the consequences are for other departments or the organisation as a whole. Consequently, while 99% of managers understand the need for innovation, they believe that it's not their job - it's not within their boundaries. It is the job of one or two specialists in the company. The consequence of this view is that, when someone suggests a new idea that requires the department to change, adapt or adjust, the innovation is rejected. The net result is innovation stagnation as the new ideas conflict with the boundaries that the department has grown to accept.

In better companies, managers react to emerging issues rapidly and are willing to sacrifice short-term departmental results in the pursuit of the company’s corporate objectives. By comparison, great organisations have a proactive culture for innovation. Whereas good companies innovate to solve challenges when they arise, great companies anticipate issues and proactively innovate to take advantage of opportunities, lead market change and prevent problems from developing.

To become a great organisation, therefore, the godfather of systems thinking, Dr.W. Edwards Deming, wrote about the need to replace management with leadership. Leadership is about proactively leading your company into the future. It's about making strategic choices on what products, services and markets in which to invest your scarce resources. It's also about investing in internal capabilities, tools and systems to enable employees to innovate faster and with greater success. Consequently, leaders should redefine the boundaries which lead to innovation stagnation for every division, department or work group within the business.

While effective leadership is an important pre-requisite for innovation, leaders don’t have all the answers and, in some cases, they can actually stifle new ideas. I’m sure we all remember Hans Christian Andersen's classic short story "The Emperor's New Clothes". In this fairy tale, a vain emperor is tricked by those working for him to believe that his new suit of clothes is made from a fabric that is invisible to anyone who is "hopelessly stupid." Everyone in the city plays along until a young child blurts out the truth, setting off a chain reaction of awareness.

To quote Jack Zipes (a retired Professor who lectures on the role of fairy tales in modern society): "Sight becomes insight, which, in turn, prompts action." It's the same with Innovation which, at its most basic, equates with change. Change conflicts with “Smart Management” and requires someone (anyone) to have the energy to speak up and declare that the existing way is not right. Innovation also needs courage because, when you speak up, there is always the chance that you will be marked as "hopelessly stupid."

In order for organisations to develop a true culture of innovation, all employees should be empowered to anticipate and speak up about the needs of both external customers and other departments within the business. Whatever you want to call it (working smarter; continuous improvement; or never ending change) innovation must become core to everyone, everywhere, every day.

Articled published by Iain Bruce

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