The culture of innovation has a dark side you need to embrace

If you’re looking to spur true innovation – the kind that can be sustained over time, rather than successful wonders – aspects of how your organization works are going to have to change. And that’s going to mean a change for the people there.

Want to accept failure? It makes a lot of sense, in theory, if you want to try new things. But if your organization is successful in creating value for today’s customers by relentlessly focusing on quality and high standards (for example), “accepting failure” will probably look like a gamble at best.

Want to make investment decisions faster without bureaucracy? Agility is great, but if your organization is measured and managed by governance, business case processes, and diligent capital allocation (and has shareholders or other stakeholders overseeing that), the game might be one of the nicest terms your employees use to describe lag.

“Culture is how you behave when no one is watching”

The change can be drastic or a gentle evolution. It can arise in the face of an existential threat or be long anticipated. Either way, for innovation to become a mainstay of your organization, you will need to ask your people – from the top team to the organization – to think and act differently.

How could you do that?

“There are two fundamental ways of influencing or controlling the behavior of people in an organization that have been a key part of management doctrine for years,” says Gary Pisano, professor at Harvard Business School. “The first is a formal incentive system, where behavior and performance are monitored, and rewards are established when what you want to happen, happens.”

The problem with incentives is that not everything is measurable (especially when it comes to innovation) and monitoring and incentives alone are unlikely to be an ideal strategy.

“There are a lot of behaviors that are important when it comes to innovation, but that are just plain hard to see or measure. Or that take a long time to pay off in terms of performance. This is where culture comes into play as the second major lever to shape behavior in organizations, ”explains Pisano.

Culture is the creation of a social contract, a set of norms by which people behave the way you want them to, before it can even be measured or rewarded.

“They say culture is the way you behave when no one is watching,” he adds. “Culture is the standards you have for what it means to be a part of your organization. And if you don’t think about how to harness that, you’re just left with the first lever – but you’ll be spending way too many resources measuring and monitoring, trying to define increasingly complex incentive systems. .. it would become quite simply untenable. “

Pisano says it’s not a choice. That organizations must pull on both levers. First, the formal measurement, tracking, incentives and rewards that combine to set expectations. Second, the attention of leaders to the underlying cultural code that one might call the soul of the organization.

Nothing particularly radical or controversial so far. Why, then, does the culture of innovation still attract evangelists and detractors?

People have become skeptical

Talk about the tangible side of your innovation agenda – the labs, the budget, the expected financial returns, and everyone is interested and has an opinion. Shift the conversation to culture, however, and you’ll likely face a different reception.

Pisano says: “I think there is a lot of skepticism about the culture of innovation, largely because of the work that has been done there and the fact that many management teams feel that it is not. ‘had no impact’.

“People gravitate towards the good side of culture. They overlook the harder or darker side ”

Popular aspects of a culture of innovation include tolerance for failure, the freedom to experiment, an emphasis on collaboration, and flat organizational structures.

“These features are all great, but many organizations have found that they either did not work or did not produce any attributable impact,” Pisano adds. “Why? Not because they’re wrong, but because people gravitate towards the good side of the culture. The easy side. And in doing so, they overlook the harder or darker side of the culture.”

Take a look at the dark side

Being innovative does not mean giving up discipline, rigor or governance. This does not make planning, measurement or monitoring redundant. And a culture of innovation does not need to have “chaos” as one of its defining characteristics.

The problem is that the concept of “culture of innovation” has become somewhat popularized, fashionable, or cliché. We’ve allowed easy or attractive traits to take center stage, and in doing so, we may have undermined the hard work it takes to achieve them. And this has led to intense cynicism, “not just among leaders,” Pisano adds, “but among those involved in innovation across an organization.”

“The concept of” culture of innovation “has become a cliché”

Professor Pisano urges innovation leaders – and indeed all senior executives interested in playing a role in the growth strategy – to exercise balance when thinking about the culture of innovation. In particular, it presents the typically pink characteristics of an innovative culture with their paradoxical, but important counterweights:

  • A tolerance for failure – but with an intolerance of incompetence
  • A willingness to experiment – but combined with extreme discipline
  • Collaboration – but linked to crystalline individual responsibility
  • Freedom to express yourself – but embrace frankness
  • A flat structure – but associated with strong leadership

“Building an innovative culture will not be a walk in the park”

“These traits can sometimes seem contradictory or paradoxical, but the idea of ​​an innovative culture must be seen differently,” concludes Pisano. “We have to recognize that building an innovative culture isn’t going to be a walk in the park… it’s going to be difficult, but if we come to terms with this, we have a good chance of overcoming some of the skepticism that we are currently facing. “

Ask yourself three questions

  1. What is the recent history of innovation in your organization? Could your leaders, executives or frontline colleagues be tired of the culture change? If so, do you plan how to approach this problem in your first communications?
  2. Have you defined the desired characteristics for a culture of innovation in your organization? If so, have you defined their “counterweight” to keep them grounded, disciplined and achievable?
  3. Be honest with yourself: are you and / or your team painting an overly rosy picture of innovation and the culture that will allow it? Have you faced the darker sides and are you ready to be upfront with your stakeholders on this?

Then on #FutureProofonculture

By early February, #FutureProofonculture explores and unboxes culture, and how it can make or break innovation ambitions.

Next week, we take a look at the main myths and missteps of innovation culture, with a little help and expertise from Stanford University Professor Yossi Feinberg, Strategyzer Tendayi Viki, and Catherine Wallwork by Deloitte Ventures.

In the meantime, search #FutureProofonculture on Twitter or LinkedIn to see what sparks conversations among your peers and join us.

Thomas Brown is Sifted’s Corporate Innovation Reporter and an award-winning freelance journalist, author and consultant specializing in digital transformation, innovation, organizational culture and consumer behavior. You’ll find him tweeting from @ThinkStuff.

Gary P. Pisano is Harry E. Figgie Jr. Professor of Business Administration and Senior Associate Dean of Faculty Development at Harvard Business School. He is the author of Creative Construction: The DNA of Sustained Innovation.

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