Defining the organizational purpose and promoting organizational alignment are two key factors for creating a culture that supports innovation. In this series of articles focused on Innovation Culture, we are going to share insights and cases of organizations that implemented innovation programs (and less structured initiatives) with the involvement of a wide range of managers and employees.
Peter Drucker’s famous quote, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” (Culey, 2012) fits corporate innovation programs quite well. Even starting from a purely strategic point of view of making choices, the culture issues arise immediately when starting to define the innovation purpose, build the program structure, selecting the teams and organizing innovation in the company.
Organizational purpose and alignment constraints
From work experiences with companies of different sectors, we identified the following organizational purpose and alignment constraints:
…their culture and leadership style did not allow the involvement of all the right people, either c-level executives or shop floor employees with a long track record and expertise in critical areas.
- Expressing clear aspirations for innovation. The best way to motivate and inspire people is to provide them a clear purpose for innovating. Everybody knows that innovation is a requirement for remaining competitive in a much more complex and unpredictable business environment. Sometimes what is missing in every kind of organization is the specific reason to innovate. Is it just because of the fierce and increasing competition or is there a strong need to differentiate the existing product portfolio by launching a new line of products?
- Defining the innovation team. Without involving the right people in the definition of the innovation purpose and the strategy to achieve it, it will be very difficult to avoid the questioning of directions and methods to commit the entire organization with the innovation program. From our experiences in supporting innovation team’s definition, we realized that the people to have on board are typically the C-level executives, the key managers and employees from project and functional areas of the organization as well as the external key partners (e.g. suppliers, clients, experts and researchers, consultants, shareholders/venture capital firms/business angels, among many other). Unfortunately, we noticed that in some of the companies their culture and leadership style did not allow the involvement of all the right people, either C-level executives that could sponsor the program or shop floor employees with a long track record and expertise in critical areas.
- Involving everyone on board. Every employee, executive and CEO has an obligation to the company to contribute to the well-being of the internal processes and develop solutions to external/internal issues. Combining only a few handpicked employees (or even just the innovation team) will make it very difficult to capture other ideas which may in fact be better from those working operationally. Engaging the C-level executives with first-hand knowledge will also send a signal that the company culture is open for ideas from everyone.
- Managing the dogmas of the CEO. This is an issue that is coming across different industries and sectors since it has to do fundamentally with the personal views and attitudes of the CEO and the other C-level executives. Sometimes it is very difficult to adapt an innovation program to the static and egocentric vision of top executives and business owners. Balancing the natural tensions between them and employee’s creativity and personal views is one of the greatest challenges for a successful implementation of an innovation program.
Sometimes it is very difficult to adapt an innovation program to the static and egocentric vision of top executives.
Culture is part of the DNA of every organization and its founders and leaders create and shape constantly. Often it is easy to find the values of an organization very well expressed even if not always put into practice. However, it is not so common to find a written and formal manifestation of the organization’s culture. Therefore, innovation culture is something that cannot be created and imposed in the organization.
Only by overcoming the engagement constraints can the CEO and the leadership team be able to craft significant cultural expressions that really facilitate innovation. Motivated and committed employees will be more active and looking to improve process or create new ideas. It’s also important that failures are rewarded as well as successes. The ones that fail experimenting novel approaches have merits too. It’s sometimes the way society looks to failures that constrains peoples’ participation.
“Engaged employees stay for what they give (they like their work); disengaged employees stay for what they get (favourable job conditions, growth opportunities, and job security).” – Blessing White’s State of Employee Engagement 2008 Global Report.
Besides engagement of the individuals, it is also important that teams really work as teams. This means that the group objectives are more important than individual ones. Activities as such are usually named team building, where employees and employers are at the same level while trying to overpass an obstacle, meaning they will work better and will be more prone to cooperate. Engaged and committed teams will be more active and looking to foster processes or create new ideas.
Conditions that facilitate employees’ engagement
Leaders must share their vision and aspirations by clearly defining the challenging goals which will motivate and inspire everyone.
- Work conditions. Proper conditions within facilities with places where people can meet, relax or socialize can really motivate employees and commit them with the innovation program. Appropriate work schedules and flexibility are also required to balance work and family. Last but not the least, an integrated evaluation scheme where the company evaluates everyone individually as well as a team performance outweighing the individual performance is a growing requirement.
- Capabilities. If organizations want to get their best employees on board then they will need to reach out to their internal competencies and see where the best practices are and how things can be more efficient. In order to do this it’s imperative to create a permanent place in the organization and the company culture in order to cultivate this area. If you are not investing in your employees, what happens to the capabilities internally? Do we gain, maintain or lose speed in the process optimization? Internal think tanks should be at every level where regularly based meetings gather ideas on-going and are reported back to an Innovation Manager.
If innovation is accepted then leaders must share their vision and aspirations by clearly defining the challenging goals which will motivate and inspire everyone, no matter their role and responsibilities in the organization. This would ensure that there is a culture established which encourages this type of thinking and the organization utilizes its resources fully. If innovation is accepted or rejected, it will depend on the openness of the leaders in the organization and in their ability to communicate the vision and aspirations.
In a collaborative company everyone is part of the innovation and closer to 99% engaged on all levels.
Collaborative leaders vs. traditional leaders
Traditional leaders are authoritative and using hierarchy to delegate ideas to put out fires, whereas collaborative leaders tend to collect the ideas and find solutions to the root of problems. A study by Dale Carnegie Training placed the number of “fully engaged” employees at 29%, and “disengaged” employees at 26% (Lipman, 2013) – meaning nearly three-quarters of employees are not fully engaged. That would suggest that that in a collaborative company everyone is part of the innovation and closer to 99% engaged on all levels.
One of the episodes that we will never forget was an innovation workshop with a conglomerate organization where the CEO invited all the members of the executive commission as well as top managers from different areas. During the process of mapping and submitting ideas and insights, the CEO was surprised by a different view from one of the senior executives about the effectiveness of the organization communication program. Instead of integrating and openly discussing a different opinion, the CEO started a personal fight with the senior executive and with all the other people that questioned the communication program. It obviously generated a mine field for collaboration and creativity which immediately killed the innovation program.
Regardless of the leadership styles used in facilitating innovation, there are real challenges that need to be met for true value to be brought to the innovation purpose which closes the alignment gap.
Here are some of the most important takeaways from this reflection – all of which have significant applications for the decision makers of innovation driven organizations.
- Define the scope of innovation across the entire organization. It means that the CEO and the top executive team have to express the reason why innovation is required and make sure that their shared vision and the strategy to achieve it is widespread among all employees. Only clearly defined and challenging goals can motivate and inspire everyone, no matter their role and responsibilities in the organization.
- Assure the alignment of the organization’s vision and the employees’ purpose by establishing common goals. If top management wants to steer the organization in one direction be clear in communicating how this can be done with the employees. Leaders should encourage everyone to contribute and actively participate in the innovation program, identifying talent and facilitators to support it. Increased collaboration and promotion of knowledge sharing among employees with diverse perspectives and backgrounds also contributes to foster innovation in the entire organization. Create the environment and spaces needed to allow creativity to really make a positive impact.
- Do not confine innovation and see it as separate from the mainstream organization key practices. If the innovation purpose is shared among the entire organization it won’t be difficult to assure that day-to-day practices are contributing to the achievement of goals. Depending on the speed of the innovation cycle, an innovative solution or product is going to be part of the core product portfolio (known solutions) as soon as it is successfully experimented, tested, developed and marketed.
- Stimulate knowledge sharing. Knowledge and Innovation Management processes are crucial in all human capital-intensive organizations, but we shouldn’t confine knowledge management activities to these processes. It’s important to look at relevant actors and stakeholders, watch the market needs and competition, state-of-art before and during mainstream processes especially on core. It’s also fundamental to promote knowledge sharing and formalization activities to establish connections to product or service design processes. Innovations, especially incremental and in processes emerge from daily commitment employees’ activities. To forget what we can learn at shop floor level is to lose important gains that come from experienced staff.
- Stay open to inputs from external partners. Getting contributions and insights from the outside is a very interesting method to shape a culture that supports collaboration and sharing of ideas. Even the most innovative organizations require some kind of open gateway with other talented people and sources of knowledge. The problem is that some organizations have a lot of difficulties in collaborating with external partners in innovation. Besides some particular issues related to the protection of Intellectual Property, successful external collaboration depends on the level of trust and confidence that an organization develop with their close external partners.
By Rui Patricio, Christina Elisabeth Pettersson & Pedro Miguel de Matos Roseiro
About the authors
Rui Patricio is the Co-founder and CEO of CONTINUE TO GROW and Managing Director of Digitalflow. He is passionate about helping organizations implement innovation cutting edge programs that enable the deployment of differentiation and value added strategies. With more than 20 years experience in management and technology, Rui is a project coordinator, an active speaker, author, lecture and workshop leader on different topics of innovation and procurement.
Christina Pettersson is a creative business professional promoting knowledge transfer among internal and external sources. Encouraging collaboration among companies, organizations and individuals. Specializing in creating awareness among professionals over several countries, sectors and industries. Creating the path of personal success through helping others.
Pedro Roseiro is Managing Partner of I-Zone Knowledge Systems, SA (a Knowledge and Information management SME) and Executive Board Member at TICE.pt (the Portuguese ICT Cluster). He is writing his MsC Thesis on “Knowledge Management in Action” at Instituto Superior Técnico’s (Universidade de Lisboa) Computer Engineering program.
Blessing White (2008) Announcing the State of Employee Engagement 2008 Global Report. 2008.
Culey, S. (2012) Leadership and Culture: Part 1 – The Case for Culture. The European Business Review, May – June 2012.
Lipman, V. (2013) Why Are So Many Employees Disengaged? Forbes, 18 January 2013.