Is ‘innovation culture’ do-able?

To say innovation is top of mind is a massive understatement. Google ‘innovation culture’ and you’ll get more than 300 million hits. Boards now take innovation seriously as a growth driver. As a result, leaders are sweating over how to make it happen, fast, and embed it within their cultures.

Yet, for a variety of reasons, not all organisations can or should aspire to an innovation culture. ‘Culture’ has been commoditised along with other critical elements of innovation. As often happens, the reality is more subtle and complex than platitudes suggest.

In a recent blog post, University of Queensland innovation researcher and author, Tim Kastelle, explores the first-order issue of where innovation fits into the business model, a question often overlooked or ignored. “The answer to the question … is not very satisfying,” Kastelle says. “The answer is: it depends.”

Kastelle and fellow UQ researcher John Steen have developed a simple matrix to guide organisations struggling to define their innovation aspirations. The nine boxes plot positions based on levels of competence and commitment. Some organisations are world-class innovators; others might not innovate much at all. It depends, Kastelle says, on what you’re trying to achieve.

“If you are a fit for purpose innovator, innovation needs to support your value proposition,” he says. “In this quadrant, your primary value is probably not based on innovating. Your value proposition is probably based on being the lowest total cost provider, having the best product, or providing the best customised solutions.”

In such organisations, innovation plays a legitimate supporting role. “Innovation will mostly be focused on the back-end operations,” Kastelle says. “It will be a key activity, which requires some resources, and possibly partnerships. All of the innovation will need to support improving your primary value proposition.”

Leadership and culture change expert, Carolyn Taylor, agrees: supporting innovation activity doesn’t necessarily mean signing up for an ‘innovation culture’. In her bookWalking the Talk, Taylor argues that every organisation has a set of values, deeply reinforced by behaviours, symbols and systems. Innovation may certainly be among those values, but it may not be as highly prized as others such as safety or performance. When the going gets tough, leaders and managers have to make difficult calls about what’s more important.

“Situations like this are values dilemmas,” Taylor says. “They force us to balance one value with another, and make choices and decisions.”

Through her work with some of the world’s leading organisations, Taylor has identified five main cultural archetypes: achievement, customer-centric, one-team, innovative, and people-first. They are not mutually exclusive, she says. There are linkages between each, and interdependencies.

“Some organisations target all five dimensions, or a mix,” Taylor says. “Others find it is more effective to give their cultural efforts a single focus. Making change in any one … requires a lot of effort and investment. Focusing on one for a year or so until you see some traction can be a better use of resources and a clearer message to your people.”

For Taylor, an innovative culture is one that strives to do what has never been done before, to improve, to be unique and to operate at the highest standards. It requires a willingness to have a go without all the information, to take controlled risks.

“If key players in your organisation have a strong risk aversion, and find it difficult to take the first step without all the facts, this culture will not fly,” she warns. “A penny-pinching mentality also makes innovation very difficult as a meanness of spirit will kill off an idea before it has developed its own momentum.”

In a genuinely innovative culture, there’s no room for strong egos who are closed to other viewpoints and refuse to back down. “The courage to act, and then quickly correct, is the key to success,” Taylor says. “Leaders in innovative organisations see their role as one of sourcing good ideas, and providing broad frameworks within which people can work with authority and autonomy in pursuing excellence in fields in which they have more knowledge than their bosses.”

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