By Edgar Papke. Among business leaders and students of organizations, there is a great deal of attention being paid to the idea of creating and leading cultures of innovation. In exploring this idea, we soon realize that the concepts surrounding what an innovation culture is, and how to create and lead a culture of innovation, are, in fact, not new. Throughout our history, innovation has always been a key driver of business and market competition, and therefore, of our organizations and teams. It is natural to us, as human beings, to strive to find new ways to do things and creatively engage in designing products and services that respond to markets and customers. It’s also not new to us to engage in continuously advancing processes, methods, and activities, the result of which is to be more innovative and deliver new and more accomplished products and services that increase the level of competition.
If the idea of innovation cultures is not new to us, what is it that makes creating and sustaining them so perplexing? One reason is that, when it comes to innovation, we typically first focus on the process of design. Even if we’re successful, having great processes and methods for innovation are only a part of the formula for success. What really keeps us challenged is the human aspect and how people come together to use the processes and systems that we intend to drive innovation. Processes and systems are, in the end, are always dependent on how well people apply them. At the forefront of the challenges leaders face in successfully creating and leading a culture of innovation are two key ingredients: people and the environment that fosters innovation.
For innovation to truly come to life requires an environment where people can come together that promotes encourages and supports risk-taking, creativity, and imagination. This is not easy. For these to exist, leaders must take on the challenge of leveraging the human desire and motivation that result in the ingenuity they seek. In my experience, this requires the leveraging of four key elements that influence how people create and work in an environment of innovation: alignment, expertise, participation and choice. While there are other factors that may contribute to success, these four elements are aspects of human motivation that are key to the successful creation and sustainability of an innovation culture.
Alignment. A simple and powerful force of any high performing culture is demonstrated through the reliability of its members to trust their understanding and alignment of the “what”, “why” and “how” things get done.
- The “what” is the shared understanding of the goal and outcome of the group, team, or organization.
- The “why” is the emotional driver that is found in the benefit of that outcome and provides purpose. This holds true regardless of whether it is a social benefit or merely the desire to beat the competition.
- The “how” begins with the steps and the processes that people engage in and quickly finds its way into the norms of behavior that define its culture. Among these norms are planning, decision-making, role definition, communication, how conflict is managed, and the role of recognition and reward.
Alignment provides predictability. This powerful aspect of culture is often overlooked. Alignment provides consistency in how people, at an individual and group level, interpret how success is obtained. The more predictable the environment and its corresponding rules of behavior (which we also refer to as its norms), the more confident its members are. This is the confidence that comesfrom being free of the fear associated with the consequences of behaving and being outside the norms. Such confidence results in less wasted energy spent on worry and conflict, and an increased commitment to the shared outcome of the group. In other words, the greater the level of safety and confidence, the higher the level of performance.
Expertise. Every creative endeavor has a baseline requirement of expertise and competency, a set of skills and knowledge that must be in place to attain success. Cultures that innovate typically accomplish this through two means. The first is to find and add individuals with specific knowledge and competencies. The second is to develop and train current members and provide them with higher levels of expertise and capability. Regardless of the approach, the intention of increasing expertise is to leverage an ever-increasing value of know-how and skills resulting in new insights and thinking, and that challenges people in the culture to continuously improve and become better to raise their game.
There is another aspect of expertise that is vital to recognize. When a team or organization raises its level of expertise, it typically results in higher levels of competition among its members. It is natural for us, as human beings, to compete with one another. In high-functioning groups, such competition results in the collaboration through which individuals challenge and push one another. This highlights the need to also develop interpersonal and team skills – competencies easily overlooked – that support the cooperative competition that results in innovation.
Participation. It is said, and it has been well documented throughout history, that human beings are social animals. At some level, we all desire to participate, to feel included and be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are motivated by the desire to be connected, to have a sense of membership and the sense of self-value that we get when others ask us for our thoughts and ideas. Of great importance is that such participation can only fully manifest itself when people feel listened to. It’s one thing to ask someone for input. It’s another to listen to it. Even if the contribution isn’t used, it is vital for the continuation of participation that they are heard and responded to. Often when people don’t feel a part of, and not listened to, they withdraw and their contributions are never made. Not only does this potentially limit or undermine innovation, the resulting conflict can often manifest in the sabotage of collaboration and teamwork.
Participation is also fundamental to how we challenge ourselves, and one another. My simple definition of innovation is the building of one idea on another. Without multiple sources of idea generation that result from participation, innovation is limited. Great recipes for success rarely have but one ingredient. People feel wanted, connected and important when they are invited to participate. This is a key to any great culture of innovation.
Choice. The word choice, in of itself, represents empowerment. It brings to mind of the power of autonomy, inventiveness, personal responsibility, and freedom. In an innovative culture, these ideas manifest in the ability of its members to express openly what they think, see and feel. Both powerful and simple, choice allows the members of organizations and teams to express their truth and to be authentic. Without such openness, innovation is never fully expressed or established.
There’s another aspect of choice and authenticity that is easy to inhibit. It is imagination. It’s hard to separate imagination and innovation, let alone to detach them from creativity.
When personal choice and the authenticity of individual expression are present in a culture, its members are more readily inspired and are more inventive. For an innovative culture to exist and succeed requires its people to be motivated to express not only their proven concepts and designs. It requires the freedom to, without fear of humiliation or rejection, to share their wildest and most radical ideas. It is only through the authenticity and openness that results from choice, that innovation is truly legitimized.