I admit, I have almost as big a problem with the platitude “Culture of Innovation” as I do with “Failing Fast.”
It’s a collision of ambiguities. Ask 20 people what they think organizational culture is, and you’ll get back 20 different answers (at least). Ask them what innovation is, and you’ll end up with Justice Potter Stewart’s take on pornography—"I know it when I see it.”
There’s agreement, head nodding, and lip service given to the need for a “Culture of Innovation”—but people deeply disagree on what it actually means.
So, I embarked on a foolhardy Googling, reading, parsing, pondering snipe hunt for a definitive meaning. Which only confirmed my confusion. One article even recommended organizations “spend several months” studying and defining innovation, which sounds like the antithesis of Culture of Innovation to me.
As a literary review of sorts, let’s take the definition of culture from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
“The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.”
Starting with the social behaviors—the way we act with one another—I removed all the consultant-speak from the vast bloat of articles, boiled that down, and came up with behavioral buckets that were consistently repeated:
- Be respectful
- Be inclusive
- Be open to learning
- Trust one another
- Reward the behavior you want from others
- Make good choices and understand the consequence of your actions
Wait a minute. What if I add, “Don’t run in the classroom”? You get where I’m going. These behaviors describe how to be a healthy, well-adjusted, and functional group of humans. These behavioral norms have nothing, yet absolutely everything, to do with innovation.
The better you are at those six behaviors, the better you’ll be at innovating. Or pretty much anything else. The foundation of having a Culture of Innovation, is to have a good culture, and conversely if you haven’t got that, stop reading and go fix it. Piling innovation on top isn’t going to help anything.
Moving on to the next part of the OED’s culture definition: customs. The processes, systems, and things that people actually do to innovate.
Once again, I’ll try to distill my readings down to simple English (as I’m both simple and English):
- Have a strategic intent. Tie innovation back to your organization’s why (your purpose in the world)—and keep tying it back. If it doesn’t fit, make a decision on the idea, your strategy, or your purpose. Something’s gotta give.
- Find the true nature of a challenge, customer pain, or job to be done—the root why of the problem. Then keep on clarifying.
- Generate lots of bold hypotheses, prioritize and test those with the highest option value first. Then keep on testing.
- Try to disprove your hypothesis as fast as you can, continually asking these four questions:
- “Is it wanted?”
- “Can we do it?”
- “Is it worth it?”
- and “How might we know?”
Admittedly, that’s quite a bit to unpack—but if you have the discipline and processes in place to perform them routinely you’ll bring a portfolio of solutions to market that you should be doing, and that address real challenges, are wanted, can be made, and are worth doing.
Innovation is systematic, in the same way that procurement, product development, and financials are systematic. You can, and should, operationalize your Cultural Customs of Innovation—otherwise you’re just waiting for lightning to strike.
Which takes us to the final part of the OED’s definition of culture—ideas. This is where it starts to get a little tricky… but I’ve boiled the collective wisdom down to one (not particularly useful) line: Deploy the right people, to do the right things, at the right time, with the right time.
Innovation needs ideas, and ideas come from people. An organizational structure must be in place that supports ideas being created, developed, and deployed—and that might be the hardest and most disruptive step of all in creating a Culture of Innovation, as it involves deconstructing, amongst other things, hierarchies, compensation, titles, hiring, benefits, budgeting, program planning, etc. Those are the kind of actions that require approval from the C-suite, and maybe even the Board. Yes and… they are in place to keep you operating in the here-and-now. Talk about tension.
So. Do I think that “Culture of Innovation” is a bunch of B.S.?
Nope. But a lot of the stuff that floats around it is.
If you are serious about fostering a “Culture of Innovation,” and not merely promulgating a glib platitude, you’ve got to execute on all three aspects of culture—as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary:
- Behavior: How we act with one another.
- Customs: The tools, processes, and practices we use to get things done.
- Ideas: Organizational structures that support human ingenuity.
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