Many seek a culture of innovation for their organization. What characterizes such a culture? How would you know if you have one? Would your colleagues agree? In this article, innovation architect Doug Collins reflects on the characteristics that comprise a culture of innovation. He explores, too, how people might assess the state of their organization as a first step in fomenting a culture of innovation.

Magazines come in two varieties: those you read and those you surf. I enjoy the former. I pay cash for magazines that promise hours of pleasurable reading.  At the newsstand my mind, unbidden, assesses the expected value of each publication that presents itself to me as follows (figure 1).

Figure 1: the author’s mental calculation to guide his purchasing decision

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If you find me lost in thought at the kiosk, rest assured that I am in the throes of wrestling this calculation to the ground across my options. Please do not disturb me. An interruption at this critical juncture may wrong-foot me into selecting Marie Claire.

My expected value equation steers me to certain magazines, time and again. The New Yorker, The Economist, and The Atlantic travel regularly with me—less so, Architectural Digest and Teen Vogue (figure 2).

Figure 2: the author’s expected value calculation steers him to certain magazines, repeatedly

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General Failure

Results from a calculation over Thanksgiving compelled me to purchase The Atlantic. The issue had a meaty article, “General Failure,” by Thomas Ricks. Ricks writes about the U.S. military and foreign affairs. I commend you to the piece: it’s good.

In a nutshell, Ricks argues that the U.S. military has fallen to a state of mediocrity—lives in a culture of mediocrity—because the organization no longer holds its top leaders, the generals, accountable. Ricks observes the following:

During World War II, senior American commanders typically were given a few months to succeed, or they’d be replaced. Sixteen out of the 155 officers who commanded Army divisions in combat were relieved for cause, along with at least five corps commanders. … [In] the wars of the past decade, hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness. This change is arguably one of the most significant developments in our recent military history.

Ricks later implies the following (emphasis is mine):

In World War II, the firing of a general was seen as a sign that the system was working as planned. Yet now, in the rare instances when it does occur, relief tends to be seen, especially inside the Army, as a sign that the system has somehow failed.

Ties to the Practice of Collaborative Innovation

I find myself dwelling on “General Failure.” It is a fine, provocative piece. Ricks’ article, too, brings to mind talks that I have had with the people who lead the practice of collaborative of innovation for their organization.

To explain Ricks argues that the U.S. military moves from a culture of mediocrity to a culture of accountability when the organization rediscovers its discipline to cycle through leaders until the right general is placed in the right leadership role, particularly during times of war. Ricks argues the other side to this coin, too, which is that generals who find themselves relieved of duty should not view the relief as a career-ending event. Organizations—and the people who lead them—need a safe space to see whether they have placed a square peg in a square hole. He cites examples from World War II where relieved officers went on to serve effectively in combat roles. Patten comes to mind.

I visualize Ricks’ argument as follows (figure 3).

Figure 3: Ricks’ thoughts on changing the U.S. military culture

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People who lead the practice of collaborative innovation share similar concerns. They, too, want a culture of accountability. Successful innovation demands powerful expressions of personal leadership, of which accountability plays a part. By the same token, they, too, understand that the practice of innovation—similar to the prosecution of a war—is inherently unpredictable. You cannot predict which ideas will resonate. You cannot predict which people will contribute compelling ideas. You cannot predict which people find the wherewithal to pursue their ideas effectively. At a minimum, you want to create a safe space where people can pose and pursue their ideas. The safety comes in knowing that, should a given idea fail or should a given person fail in pursuing their innovation, absent gross negligence, that their trials should be accepted and not penalized in the form of a career-ending sanction.

To me, Ricks argues for a very mature form of leadership: one in which people have the opportunity to realize their potential for leadership—in his scenario, through combat command—and one in which people know they will be relieved if they do not perform, but not to the extent that that one particular breach becomes an enduring black mark on their record.

How often, by contrast, have people who lead the practice of collaborative innovation confided in me by saying, “My organization [insert Fortune 1000 name here] does not tolerate failure. You get one chance to prove yourself.” Ricks reminds me why these organizations and the people who lead them have inadvertently hobbled themselves. They leave no slack in the system. The price for failure seems too high. People work mightily not to fail as opposed to succeed. Mediocrity enters.

What to Do?

People such as Weisbord, Janoff, Brown, and Isaacs, who write about effecting change in ways that improve culture, speak in terms of “seeing the whole”: helping people reach a shared understanding of the current state of affairs. (Ricks speaks in the same terms, relative to the effectiveness of generals. Does the general fully see and understand the nature of the war to be prosecuted? He provides harrowing examples where the answer to this question is “no,” tragically.)

To this end, I encourage practitioners of collaborative innovation to ask the people in their organization the following questions. I tie the rationale behind each enquiry to Ricks’ piece.

  • The leaders in my organization have carved a safe space where people have time to explore and pursue new ideas which may have the potential to advance our goals.

Why this question? Ricks observed that the failing of generals in the present day had to do with misreading the situation—not understanding the nature of the war and not envisioning the larger end game. While omniscience cannot reasonably be part of a person’s job description, designating a space to figure out the unknown and to navigate the unpredictable must be part of the charter. Do people speak the truth to one another about what they see, what they know, and what they do not know?

  • The organization assigns a high value to leadership effectiveness. Relative to innovation, a reasonable number of new ideas deliver benefit within a reasonable period of time.

Why this question? No organization has unlimited time, money, and people with which to pursue ideas. How effectively do people in the organization perceive the leadership to be in marshaling resources to pursue innovation? Ricks notes that the U.S. military gave field commanders a couple months to prove themselves during World War II. Each organization has its own limits. Exploring them—knowing them and enforcing them—serves as an accountability lever.

  • We acknowledge failure without laying blame—and then we regroup. Relative to innovation, we accept that not every idea will have legs. People get another bite at the apple, albeit in different roles and capacities.

Why this question? Ricks observes that paralysis happens when the price for innovating—for sticking one’s neck out—becomes too high. The first step in stepping back from the “we want to innovate; we do not tolerate failure” trap is to find whether you are in it. Do people in your organization tell campfire stories about former colleagues who tried something, failed, and were shown the door? If you find yourself in a zero tolerance environment, then you can figure out how to extricate yourself. This malignancy afflicts many organizations who have run the gauntlet of the recent, global recession.

To close, the practice of collaborative innovation is not a battle or a war in the tangible sense that Riggs describes. The stakes for you and me are different. At the same time, Riggs’ insight on the culture of mediocrity that afflicts the military offers lessons for those who lead the practice of collaborative innovation within their organization.

The battle for claiming white space in a new market is different than the battle for wringing efficiency from the core business which is in turn different from the battle of trying something new on the side, with zero expectation that the trial will work. Know which battle you fight. Find the best people to fight each one. Be accountable to the organization by circulating people through the roles until you find the best person for each situation. Be accountable to the leaders you designate by valuing what they bring to the table, regardless of whether they excel at a particular position. Help them find their spot.

By Doug Collins

About the author:

Doug Collins is an Innovation Architect who has specialized in the fuzzy front end of innovation for over 15 years. He has served a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. As an author, Doug explores the critical questions relating to innovation in his book Innovation Architecture, Practical Approaches to Theory, Collaboration and Implementation. The book offers a blueprint for collaborative innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management.