Linda Gorchels blogs

Coaching a Culture of Innovation

Innovation is the Holy Grail in many of today’s organizations. Amazon lists over 50,000 books on the topic, and a Google search finds over 40 million results. With that much information available, why don’t we have THE answer yet?

Maybe it has to do something with culture. Sustainable innovation requires a stable culture of innovation. That can be a challenge.

While organizations are not creative per se, they set the stage for employees. They provide the environment (culture and blueprints) that either enable or stifle it.  I described  a basic motivational blueprint (Teresa Amabile’s Componential Theory of Creativity) in my post on organizational creativity. Here I want to focus on culture.

Culture is essentially the personality of an organization—its mores, social dynamics, and ambiance. It’s “the way we do things around here.” According to Henry Mintzberg:

“Culture is the soul of the organization — the beliefs and values, and how they are manifested. I think of the structure as the skeleton, as the flesh and blood…. Culture is the soul that holds the thing together and gives it life force.”

What does it take for innovation to be the “soul of an organization,” its life force? Quite frankly, it takes work.

Diagnose your existing culture

I’ve spoken with dozens of individuals interested in helping their organizations build a culture of innovation. Some were in human resources, others in various line functions. They came from for-profit, non-profit, small businesses and mature firms covering the gamut of industries. Yet, the challenges they articulated were similar. How could they drive top-line and bottom-line results by nudging employees toward fruitful creative expression?

Start by diagnosing your current culture as it relates to innovation. Is there a greater emphasis on the long-term or the short-term? What are the current attitudes toward (and consequences of) risk-taking, accountability, and failure? How much focus is there on stars versus the solar system of employees?

Several years ago, I had a professional services client facing disruptive industry change. Innovation was critical. The new CEO correctly detailed the current culture. It embodied high professionalism, integrity, customer focus, and compassion—but also inertia, insularity, and a process over results emphasis. To compete in the new dynamic environment, change was necessary. The culture needed to accommodate risk-taking, accountability and an external competitive and market focus.

The culture needed new roots.

Cultivating innovation

A culture isn’t changed from a big pronouncement. Or from a few training programs. It’s an ongoing process of conscious actions, a process of planting new roots and cultivating them toward harvest.  Much has been written about the freedom side of innovation. Employees need autonomy and flexibility. They need to embrace failure. And they need a psychological safety net. But that’s only one side of innovation. The other side is results and accountability.

Dr. Waguih Ishak, chief technologist at Corning Research & Development Corporation, recognizes this fact. In his McKinsey Quarterly article, Creating An Innovation Culture, he urges leaders to embrace what he calls innovation parenting.

“In my experience, innovative cultures start with a philosophy and a tone—one analogous to the classic parenting advice that children need both “roots and wings.” As an innovation leader, you must ground creative people in accountability for the organization’s objectives, key focus areas, core capabilities, and commitments to stakeholders. Then you give them broad discretion to conduct their work in service of those parameters. Obsessing too much about budget and deadlines will kill ideas before they get off the ground.”

Gary Pisano, in Harvard Business Review’s The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures,  expands on the two-sided nature of innovation.

“…Innovative cultures are misunderstood. The easy-to-like behaviors that get so much attention are only one side of the coin. They must be counterbalanced by some tougher and frankly less fun behaviors. A tolerance for failure requires an intolerance for incompetence. A willingness to experiment requires rigorous discipline. Psychological safety requires comfort with brutal candor. Collaboration must be balanced with individual accountability. And flatness requires strong leadership. Innovative cultures are paradoxical. Unless the tensions created by this paradox are carefully managed, attempts to creative culture will fail.”

Get started

As I mentioned earlier, creating an innovation culture is not a one-and-done deal. There will be ongoing setbacks. A focus on outcomes can dampen risk tolerance and vice versa. Tolerating failure, even when it is the “right type” of failure, can wear thin when results aren’t visible. And creative energy can evaporate when stress is high. But keep going. Accept that establishing a culture is a process, not an outcome.