October 22, 2012
5 Inexpensive Ways to Jump Start a Sustainable Culture of Innovation

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Trying to create a culture of innovation is a daunting task for even the most committed organization.

Cultures take decades to form. Changing them is not an overnight phenomenon, no matter how many outside consultants you've gotten on the case. You might as well try to end world hunger or wipe out Aids overnight. It's gonna take a while.

But if you and your colleagues are game, culture change is possible. The question, of course, is where to begin?

Starting is always the hardest part. And, in the absence of clarity about where to start, procrastination creeps in -- and nothing changes.

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OK. Enough preamble. Here are five ways to get started. Pick one or all five -- and don't forget to enjoy the process.

1. Name the Beast: If you want to change something, you will need to begin by understanding the current reality of that which you attempting to change. Make sense?

If you're getting into a new market, for example, you'd expect to do some competitive intelligence gathering, right? And if you've decided to parachute into Iran, it would make sense to do some diligence, before hand, no?

Same with the effort to foster a culture of innovation.

Get closer to the problem. Talk to people. Survey your workforce. Get everyone talking -- not just the C-Suite folks, but the people in the mail room, too.

Get off of the generic, politically correct stand that may be ruling the day and get down to the bones.

Then, when you make your case, more formally, you'll have some meaningful ground to stand on -- and the people listening will listen deeper than if you merely showed up one day with a few powerpoint slides, an anecdote from Google, and your newly expressed burning passion for the cause.

2. Set the Expectation: You get what you expect. That's the deal. Psychology experiment after psychology experiment has borne this out again and again.

You need a very strong intention to do this work and then you need to communicate it in a way that is compelling.

Your workforce needs to understand this is not the job of senior leadership, or HR, or R&D. It's everyone's job. Only when a critical mass of people in your organization embraces this effort will anything substantial happen.

If not, you will be wasting your breath -- and their time.

3. Define Innovation: Google "innovation" and you'll find thousands of definitions.

What do you mean by "innovation?" What is your definition? How do you want people thinking about it?

Is it incremental innovation? Disruptive innovation? Product innovation? Process innovation? Or is the whole thing really just a secret code for "cost cutting?"

Before anything significant can happen, you'll need to get aligned with your senior team about what, precisely, you mean by innovation -- and then communicate that, with some passion, to the workforce.

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4. Frame the Challenges: OK. Let's say you want a sea change of innovation within your organization. Great. But in what specific domains? What are the specific challenges people can get their arms around and actually focus on?

As Charles F. Kettering once said, "A problem well-defined, is a problem half solved."

Towards that end, you and your team will need to dive in and start framing the problem. Not vaguely. Not generically. Very specifically. The clearer you are about communicating the domains in which you are asking people to innovate, the more results will show up.

The framing of the challenge, however, is not just your job. You'll need to invite others to get into the act.

If you've done your "name the beast" effort (see #1), this should be relatively easy.

5. Acknowledge What's Already Working: Lots of organizations who dive into the deep end of "culture change" have a tendency to get a sudden case of amnesia when it comes to their corporate history.

Inspired by the promise of the new, they forget to acknowledge the old -- paying precious little attention to what's already working well.

There are a ton of best practices already going on in your organization. There are many inspired "pockets of creativity" where turned-on-teams are doing exactly what they need to do to succeed.

The only thing is: very few people in the company know about this.

Everyone is so enmeshed in their own silos, that they have no clue what innovation-friendly behaviors are alive and well just down the hall -- behaviors they can learn from, adapt, and get rolling within their own spheres of influence.

Building on past successes will not only encourage people, it will guide their journey forward in ways that are empowering, uplifting, and real. And while you're at it, don't forget to routinely acknowledge current successes, as well -- the good things that happened today.

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Thanks to Tim Gallwey for his refinement of #5.

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at October 22, 2012 02:58 PM

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