January 29, 2008


These days, almost all of my clients are talking about the need to establish a sustainable culture of innovation. Some, I am happy to report, are actually doing something about it. Hallelujah! They are taking bold steps forward to turn theory into action. My hat is off to all of them -- and sometimes, my head. Nevertheless, the challenge remains the same for them as it does thousands of other forward-thinking companies and that is, to find a simple, authentic way to address the challenge from the inside out -- to water the root of the tree, not just the branches. In other words, to get down to the essential DNA of what drives innovation.

In today's process-driven, OD-centric, Six-Sigma savvy organization, the tendency is to focus on systems as opposed to people -- as if systems were sufficient to guarantee change. Guess what? Systems are not sufficient to guarantee change. In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Systems die. Instinct remains."

One only has to tune into the latest Democratic or Republican TV debate to see the folly of our national addiction to systems. Every candidate promising change has a plan, a strategy, and a well-conceived policy. But history has shown that these are never sufficient. This is not to say that organizations should ignore systems and structures in their effort to establish a culture of innovation. They shouldn't. Indeed, this is a big part of what Idea Champions does -- help its clients think through the kind of systems and structures that support the creation of a culture of innovation. But alas, systems and structures all too often become the Holy Grail -- much in the same way that Six Sigma has become the Holy Grail.

Unfortunately, when the addiction to systems and structures rules the day, an organization's quest for a culture of innovation all too often degenerates into nothing much more than a cult of innovation.

Organizations do not innovate. People innovate. Inspired people. Fascinated people. Creative people. Committed people. That's where innovation begins. On the inside. The organization's role -- just like the individual manager's role -- is to get out of the way. And while this "getting out of the way" will undoubtedly include the effort to formulate supportive systems, processes, and protocols, it is important to remember that systems, processes, and protocols are never the answer. They are the context, not the content. They are the husk, not kernel. They are the menu, not the meal.

Ultimately, organizations are faced with the same challenge that religions are faced with. Religious leaders may speak passionately, on Sundays, about the virtues their congregation needs to be living by, but sermons only name the challenge and remind people to experience something -- they don't necessarily change behavior. Change comes from within the heart and mind of each individual. It cannot be legislated.

What's needed, quite simply, in organizations who aspire to a culture of innovation, is an inner change. InnerVation is what I call it. People need to experience something within themselves that will spark and sustain their effort to innovate -- and when they experience this "something," they will be self-sustaining. They will think about their projects in the shower, in their car, and in their dreams. They will need very little "management" from the outside. Inside out will rule the day -- not outside in. Intrinsic motivation will flourish. People will innovate not because they are told to, but because they want to. Open Space Technology is a good metaphor for this. When people are inspired, share a common, compelling goal and have the time and space to collaborate, the results become self-organizing.

In the case of my clients, the change they are seeking is "more robust innovation" -- the kind that favorably impacts the bottom line. What does this require? A favorable change within each individual employee. As above, so below. The "Holographic Universe," it has been called.

You can create all the reward systems you want. You can reinvent your workspace until you're blue in the face. You can license the latest and greatest idea management tool, but unless each person in your organization OWNS the need to innovate and finds a way to tap into their own INNATE BRILLIANCE, all you'll end up with is a mixed bag of systems, processes, and protocols -- the husk, not the kernel -- the innovation flotsam and jetsam that the next administration or next CEO or next key stakeholder will mock, reject or change at the drop of a hat if the ROI doesn't show up in the next 20 minutes.

You want culture change? You want a culture of innovation? Great. Then find a way to help each and every person in your organization come from the inside out. Deeply consider how you can awaken, nurture, and develop the primal need all people have to create something extraordinary.

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at January 29, 2008 10:58 AM


I think this article is full of organic language and this is good. There is systematic order and there is organic order. Organic order promotes innovation (probably adaptation using organic language). If something fails in systematic order the system fails. If something fails in organic order the failure may build the order up. Using the tree metaphor again, if a tree dies and falls to the ground it has "failed" but it enriches the soil as it rots. This ensures "breeding ground" for new anything. Innovation requires order that would allow it to be dynamic. Systematic order is static and prevents unhindered innovation. I truly believe organic order would allow for innovation. Excellent post by the way.

Posted by: Kaleb Heitzman [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 6, 2008 09:10 PM

Kaleb: Thanks for the kind acknowledgment. If you want to read more about our approach to an "organic order," you may want to check out another blog posting here re: Garden of Innovation. It describes our model for how we help organizations foster a sustainable culture of innovation. MITCH DITKOFF


Posted by: Mitch Ditkoff [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 7, 2008 11:56 AM

Mitch: The Garden of Innovation post is excellent! I am currently pursuing my master's in leadership and this idea of organic community has absolutely encompassed me. Thanks for the resource!

Posted by: Kaleb Heitzman [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 9, 2008 12:36 PM

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Idea Champions is a consulting and training company dedicated to awakening and nurturing the spirit of innovation. We help individuals, teams and entire organizations tap into their innate ability to create, develop and implement ideas that make a difference.

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