I’m not sure I buy into the concept of organisations having a culture of innovation.
After all, innovation is a process consisting of four things:
- Having an idea that solves a problem
- Doing something with that idea
- Proving that it delivers new value for people
- Translating it into reality and making it part of the everyday
The idea then that innovation is everyone’s job is naive at best. Successful organisations need to be boringly reliable and radically disruptive at the same time, living with two competing sets of values.
However I do believe in creating the right culture for innovation.
Indeed, for an organisation to support innovation the culture must accommodate the risk and uncertainty that accompanies it.
What kind of culture are we looking for?
For me there are four elements to this:
Just enough friction: the most effective teams have regular, intense debates. As leaders, we need to help our teams disagree more. Discord has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.
The practice of high standards: innovation requires a set of crosscutting practices and processes to structure, organise, and encourage it. This requires a steady supply of high performing people who are committed. And if you create an environment of energy and high performance it will attract other high performers.
Permission to be different: a culture where it’s allowable, even encouraged, to push back. Everyone should be OK with questioning assumptions, calling out inconsistent behavior and challenging old business models.
The ability to think and act experimentally: a tolerance for failure through practical experiments that show whether the fundamental assumptions about innovation are correct and what they mean for the business.
These traits only happen through a commitment to creating the right conditions. These are cultures that are reinforced every day, not just by the leadership , but with active collaboration from people at every tier of the organisation.
Let’s face it – most Mission Statements and Company Values are a complete waste of time. They exist as tacked up bits of paper on a wall rather than something that sits in the hearts and minds of people.
Here are three organisations from very different industries whose values are conducive to supporting innovation:
Zappos , the online shoe and clothing store, are known for their unique culture and values. Their CEO Tony Hsieh has said his company’s number one priority is the company culture. “Our whole belief is that if we get the culture right, then most of the other stuff, like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand or business, will just be a natural by-product of that.”
Here are the Zappos core values that are designed to be different:
- Deliver WOW Through Service
- Embrace and Drive Change
- Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
- Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
- Pursue Growth and Learning
- Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
- Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
- Do More With Less
- Be Passionate and Determined
- Be Humble
With the call to “create fun and a little weirdness”, Zappos are making it a place that supports innovation.
I love the culture of Buffer, a service that helps you share to social networks. You can feel the genuine enthusiasm for the organisation from the people who work there and what they tweet and blog about.
The Buffer team has jointly decided which words define the culture and put together this list of the 10 Buffer Values and how they live them.
What’s impressive here is that they are a continual work in progress, with all members developing them in the open.
Having dealt with Buffer on a number of occasions I can say their values are displayed both in 1:1 dealings and in their online social presence: Listen First , Then Listen More.
(Disclosure: I work for Bromford and have a hand in developing the DNA – but I think it’s worth sharing the story)
Imagine screwing up your mission statement , vision and values and handing it over to three colleagues to start all over again and pitch it direct to the CEO. That’s what Bromford did and it’s how they came up with their original Bromford DNA.
The latest version of the DNA though, developed under new CEO Robert Nettleton, had a completely different genesis – focusing on collaboration. Bromford held more than 30 workshops with over 500 colleagues attending and sharing their views. After these sessions a smaller group of colleagues took part in a fusion session with Bromford Lab – and from this the final definitions of our DNA emerged.
The fact so many people have co-developed the DNA gives Bromford a head start in embedding the culture. When you’ve energised the early adopters, you have given the framework for the culture added impetus and traction.
Bromford have even provided colleagues with a personalised notebook for them to record their actions and barriers to consistently living the DNA.
Supporting ideas from fruition, selecting the best ones, experimenting and growing them is a very fragile process.
All we can really do as leaders is to create a climate that supports innovation – a climate that will help to sustain a future ready organisation over the years to come.