By Darrel Rhea. The most frequent request I get from senior leaders is “Help us create a culture of innovation.” What leader wouldn’t want this? It turns out that a significant number of leaders don’t want it. They clearly want the outcomes of a culture of innovation – increased revenues from new, differentiated higher-margin products, more engaged and creative employees, and happier customers. And they are quick to declare the desired transformation and delegate the implementation to others. But very few leaders appreciate what changing a culture requires, nor are they at all clear about what exactly they expect from “innovation.”
Here are four big issues one must address when responding to this challenge:
1. It is about change. Human beings don’t like change. Groups of humans dislike it even more, and resist it even when change is necessary for survival. Yes, we all want to be fitter and healthier, but we aren’t so great at changing our diet. When we are talking about changing culture, we are talking about changing attitudes, behaviors, systems, environment, and much more. Culture change is the most difficult transformation an organization can make. Our culture defines our identities, and we won’t give that up for “the management theme of the month.” Every leader underestimates how much resistance there will be to culture change, and how much it will take to overcome that resistance.
The biggest change issue you must deal with is how to decide to change. Cultures become frozen because there isn’t a decision-making mechanism to override the current system, and they lack the collective courage to demand what is needed. While leadership plays a critical role in declaring and authorizing change, they cannot just demand it.
Most leaders want organizational change to happen, but they don’t want to change themselves. In their eyes, usually the solution to the problem is fixing everyone else. This is often the reverse of what the rest of the company is thinking, and they are generally right: culture starts at the top. Leaders need a willingness to transform themselves and take coaching support.
2. It is about crossing boundaries. Almost all culture change initiatives fail because they only tackle a few elements of change. For example, new process and structural changes are made, but we don’t change compensation or incentives that undermine desired changes. We forget what culture is – an integrated pattern of behavior (approaches, processes, practices, rituals), beliefs (attitudes, values, meaning), and human knowledge (ways of thinking). To shift something so pervasive, it requires not just the active participation of executive leadership and a holistic approach, but a willingness to cross boundaries and challenge the sacred. Partial solutions are just that; they won’t manifest authentic change.
3. It is about defining preferred futures. Nothing strikes at the heart of an organization like challenging how it creates value for its customers and other stakeholders. Our stance to innovation embodies our values and our aspirations for the future. Innovation requires great risk, challenging us to be clear about what “good” innovation is for our organization. Does creating a culture of innovation mean more incremental “building on the core”? Or does it signify “inventing what’s next”? This must be explicit, and rarely is.
4. It is about strategic conversations. If you are going to change your culture and change your approach to innovation, you must have a strategy. You need a shared language, shared understanding of the current context, shared intent about purpose and goals, shared commitment to produce outcomes, and shared ideas on how to achieve those outcomes. This only comes from a carefully designed and facilitated strategic conversation with executive leadership.
Creating a culture of innovation should strike fear in the hearts of those responsible for driving change. Creating any transformation is challenging, but nothing compares to the scope of activities and resources required for this one to be successful. You need to be fully committed, enroll your leadership, and get the best help you can find.