The importance of “qualities” for building a culture of innovation


We hear a lot of talk of “culture in innovation”, but not much agreement of the kind of culture we have in mind when we speak about the “qualities” of that culture. We are preoccupied with performance variables on the one hand, and sorting into metric classes and tools, on the other. In my opinion, both ideas reduce the qualities into a narrow range of metrics on a checklist, a list of KPIS or a set of test scores Normally, the majority of organizations are looking for a method of standardization, but they fail to understand that culture is difficult to codify in a way of objective standards and metrics.

In my opinion, the most important thing for any organization that wants to be prepared for innovation is to shape the right culture to drive that innovation. When I talk about culture, I mean the explicit and implicit values and norms, the unconscious messages and behaviors of leaders and employees that often limit performance. Because -if there is not the right culture- all the organizational change efforts, innovation methods and processes are certain to fail.

People are the core asset to an organization, but without the right “mindset” -shaped by the corporate culture- people can become the biggest obstacles. This means that the main priority for building a culture of innovation should be to shape the right mindset of managers and employees. Based on my experience, to do this successfully it is vitally important to educate people in certain key qualities as collaboration and concern -the importance of having an open mind, to be engaged, interested and to care.

Collaboration, space and time

Modern leadership must be responsible for growing the collaborative quality in their innovation culture. The quickest way to develop the ability to foster collaboration and help people work better together is to connect people who share a common passion and interest, and give them the space and the time to work together. Any organization that wants to innovate needs to move beyond the culture silos approach and develop what I call a more unstructured approach” in terms of space and time. This means to remove traditional barriers that separate work groups to allow people who don’t normally see or talk to one another to have the chance to meet and talk, to discuss and share ideas and knowledge, to expand engagement beyond the traditional work groups. Collaboration will not happen if there is not the space and time to experiment with new ideas. That’s why top innovative organizations, like 3M and Google, give their employees “unstructured time and spaces” to explore new opportunities.

Innovation needs the right space and time to develop and grow, but often employees are so consumed with putting out fires and dealing with short-term challenges that most can’t even think about the future. In fact, in many organizations it’s the break room, coffee corner or the bar that have become critical spaces for informal exchange to spark new collaborations between an informal group over a cup of coffee and at the same time thinking about the future. A sense of freedom and trust is essential for innovation. For all these reasons, it is equally important to design “safe spaces” where employees can get away from their desks for opportunities to run ideas past others with the same interests, as it is to create some focus areas where they can concentrate on their present work.

Collaboration is not only something related to the internal organization. In fact, nowadays, consumer-led innovation is one of the most exciting developments in open innovation. Consumers, traditionally considered as value exchangers are now considered a source of value creation. That’s the reason forward thinking companies are inviting them to collaborate, to help them think about their next generation of products or services. It is also important to involve outsiders who have no agenda to push in order to obtain fresh perspectives; to use the skills and know-how of external stakeholders, consumers and suppliers.

Even though collaboration comes with its difficulties and potential problems, this type of cooperative work in organizations -utilizing both internal and external resources- is key for enlarging its knowledge base and to provide better results that come from collaborating with a better pool of people. It also offers some other key benefits in terms of resources, as innovations are developed in shorter time frames and with less investment. In terms of market success there is also a much higher probability of relevance and fit with a particular target.

Concern, engagement and interest

Collaboration means to be open, to have an open mind, curiosity and interest. In my opinion, another very important quality is “concern”, to enable in the team an urgency to inquire and to engage with something that makes sense. People want to feel passionate and motivated –to care and stand up for something- because they are willing to work and collaborate for a purpose, to find a solution for the problems of other people. This is something very essential beyond any economic enticement. Without this sense of engagement, interest and care for something that matters, people are less likely to be motivated and to proactively help the company discover the next generation of products and services.

Engaged employees look for new ways of adding value to the process (continuous improvement, making connections…), to the culture (collaborating, empowerment, motivation …) and to the outputs (find opportunities to innovate, come up with ideas, etc). Some important endowers for engagement and cultivating concern on the teams start with engaging managers. Managers need to demonstrate the importance of innovation through actions and resources, not only with words. Employees will perceive that innovation matters if managers spend their time leading on and supporting innovation work inside the organization; exploring innovation and seeking inspiration from outside the organization; allocating resources –financial and people– to experiment with new ideas and implementing change across the whole business; regularly give employees time off from everyday roles to explore new ideas and implement innovation and change.

Employees should feel empowered to explore, experiment and make decisions; also, it is very important to avoid bureaucracy and the fear of failure if things don’t’ go well. Another key endower is to have transparency in the organization and facilitate communication within the team, communicate often and clearly with each other, whatever the level or team; encourage open communication and allow for occasions to question and challenge the way business is done.

Finally, to promote concern and engagement, it is imperative to embed and spread innovation throughout the organization. Innovation must be expected and happen from everyone also important to go beyond targets and goal setting in order to make innovation happen naturally. Innovation is about cultivating “the right qualities”, and happens when there is less pressure on the group or individual

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