The Culture of Innovation

bigstock-142999232Innovation has become the business buzzword du jour of late. The business press is filled with articles and guides on how to be more innovative. And while there are nuggets of insight and helpful information scattered among the books and articles, I think those well-meaning authors who try to boil innovation down into a 5-step plan short-change their readers.

Innovation is not a 5-step plan. It is a messy paradox of contradictions, and there is not one “right” way to do it. Innovation can be about tweaking something to make it more effective or developing a totally new concept. It requires structure and flexibility. Urgency and patience. It requires one to chart a clear path, and have a willingness to press ahead without knowing the final destination. It is energizing and exasperating. Perhaps most importantly, it is not a set of tasks, it is a culture that develops over time.

I’m not suggesting that every organization has to be innovative. Much of the world is designed to reward coloring inside the lines. In many ways, that is a safer, easier approach and individuals can build successful, rewarding careers by leading within established guidelines. And even within organizations noted for being innovative, significant portions of their operations may follow a more traditional approach. So what is different about innovative organizations? Their culture.

Culture is “how we do things around here” — what we believe and how we think, feel and behave. Is it okay to challenge someone up the organizational hierarchy? What does the organization lead with . . . people or profits, mission or metrics? Now please hear me . . . all four are important components of success . . . an innovative company still has to be able to keep the doors open. A culture of innovation, however, has to have a higher tolerance for the messiness of trial and error and the fluidity required to maximize the unique gifts and graces of people scattered throughout your organization.

John Kotter’s concept of a dual operating system visually captures what this type of culture may look like, with part of an organization functioning in a more traditionally hierarchical way, and other parts much more fluid, drawing from all areas of the organization. In such a culture, it is okay — it feels safe — for someone with more front line experience to tell someone from an administrative function that their idea simply won’t work (respectfully, of course) and then offer their suggestions for a better approach. Good ideas are the great equalizers, and there is a spirit of productive experimentation as opposed to “this better work or else . . .”

Building a culture of innovation doesn’t happen with a pep talk or a plan. It happens based on your approach, your attitude, and your willingness to act . . . one step at a time. Maybe you’d better get started!

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