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How to develop a culture that supports innovation and creativity.

By Ruth Tearle

You have been tasked with managing innovation in your organization. But does your culture support innovation? You may have the world's best innovation system. You have very generous incentives for innovative ideas. But do you have the culture that encourages people to be innovative? Will people submit innovative ideas to your system? And will they be prepared to work on projects that bring these innovative ideas to life?

Enemies of innovation

enemyMany creativity and innovation management systems fail because people simply don't support them. People often don’t put forward innovative ideas because they don’t FEEL it is in their best interests to do so. Often elements within a companies culture, work against the creativity and risk taking required by innovation. Enemies of innovation include:

  • Best practices and benchmarking. Best practices are standardized ways of doing things based on what has worked well for other successful organizations. Comparing your organization to how the world's best operate is useful, when you want to set minimum standards. But it does prevent people from being innovative and thus setting their own new standards of excellence.
  • When all think alike,

    then no one is thinking.

    Walter Lippman

  • Certainty and order. Rules, procedures, templates, and tick box lists ensure conformity. While these are important for factory environments, where certain quality standards have to be achieved, conforming and compliance stifle creativity and innovation.
  • Perfectionism. People who seek perfection, need to feel constantly 'in control'. Innovation, creativity and imagination require one to 'let go of control', to 'explore without knowing the end destination.'
  • Fear of failure and fear of mistakes. I have heard leaders tell their people that 'making a mistake once is okay, but making it twice is unacceptable.' Or 'it's okay to make a mistake if you learn from it.' This attitude discourages people from experimenting, exploring or just trying things out to see what works and what doesn't. This messy,' learn as you go' approach is key to innovation.
  • A bias towards rational logical thinking. In business we tend to favour logical, rational thinking. This type of thinking uses the left side of our brains. Yet most innovative breakthroughs occur when we use the right side of our brain, or our imagination.
  • Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life's coming attractions"— Albert Einstein
  • A desire for instant results. Many business leaders prefer to focus on whatever is quick and easy to achieve. Many leaders encourage their people to look for 'low hanging fruit' or opportunities that will generate 'quick wins.' However innovation is a slow process that involves research, learning, experimentation, work and rework before anything meaningful is produced. An expectation of quick results often means people are encouraged to use what has worked before, rather than to innovate.
  • An expectation that people are constantly available. Some organizations require their people to drop whatever are doing, and respond immediately, whenever a client or senior leader calls them. This expectation, makes it very difficult for people to make space in their diaries for innovation time. A time when they disconnect, and focus their full attention on one single theme or problem. Having to be constantly available, means that people develop a habit of multi-tasking. By constantly dividing their attention between many tasks and people, they become over-stimulated. They lose the art of being able to focus fully on one single thing
  • Too much to do. In many organizations, simply have too much to do in their existing jobs, to create the time and space needed for innovation.
  • Performance management and reward systems that reward operational work only. Many organizations' performance management systems and balanced scorecards, fail to recognise the time and effort people spend on innovative work. This means that those who spend more time just doing their jobs, are likely to be rewarded more than those who spend time innovating.
  • Undermining of new ideas. Some team members and leaders criticize or ridicule any new idea that seems to 'break the rules.' They may snigger at a crazy idea. They may demand proof that it works. They will provide examples of others that tried and failed to do similar things before. They like to see themselves playing the role of 'devil's advocate' - by pointing out the flaws of each new idea. Acting from habit, they may not be aware of how their comments prevent people from sharing their creative ideas.

Friends of innovation

Innovate! Innovative leaders. These leaders understand what it takes to be innovative. They are people who have the following qualities.

  • A clear focus. The ability to frame a problem or a challenge to their teams in a simple, yet inspiring way.
  • A tolerance for the unknown. They are prepared to embark on a process where they don't know what the end result will be.
  • Courage to let go of certainties. To explore. To experiment.
  • Patience with the slow pace of innovation.
  • Ability to inspire, encourage and coach their teams. They inspire them to generate new ideas. They show them how to use different creativity techniques to solve different problems. They coach them on how to develop their ideas into business cases, and how to sell them to decision makers.

Innovative people in the team. These are people who have:

  • The time and ability to concentrate and focus on a single theme.
  • Courage to present rule breaking ideas to others. Ideas that powerful people may be threatened by.
  • Discipline and the passion to keep working on their ideas, in the face of resistance, until they have achieved a result.
  • A strong self esteem. They are comfortable with learning by doing. With researching, exploring and experimenting. They are not put off when things don't work out as they expect. They believe in themselves and their ability to create and achieve. They don't allow critics of their work to intimidate them.

An ability to imagine. To see things differently. To integrate ideas from many different areas of their lives and experiences. To visualize.

A lot of companies have chosen to downsize...We chose a different path. Our belief was that if we kept putting great products in front of customers, they would continue to open their wallets.” Steve Jobs

Combine a culture of innovation, with a powerful innovation system - and you will be amazed at how easily you are able to create new products, services and processes that will make your organization more competitive.

In addition, you will unleash a wave of energy, creativity and motivation amongst your people. This is creativity and innovation management in practice.

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