Culturing the ‘Innovation culture’ (Drags: Part 1)

posted by Ravi Arora February 13, 2017

In the previous two posts I discussed about how absence of an innovation culture bothers top leaders but unfortunately most of them aren’t able to do anything about it. In the previous post, I explained how cultures are shaped (cultured) by using processes over a longer period of time. Many readers asked for examples of the Innovation culture that are stumbling blocks and how processes could help in overcoming them. This is relatively easier for me to respond because I had explained some of these in my book as well.

Think of the life-cycle of any seed that germinates and finally becomes a tree or a new born baby that becomes an adult. They need different types of nourishment and environment. Similarly cultural elements required to nurture innovations differ from the time when an idea strikes in the mind of an individual all the way to the time when the organisation gets the return from the innovation.

Let me take one of the very early stages of the innovation life cycle to explain a few cultural elements – ‘Journey of an idea from an individual to others’

Ideas get generated in the minds of individuals. The organisation needs to invest in the idea to achieve innovation. In one of my previous posts, I explained that innovations are always top down. Since every employee is at the top of his team (the lowest person in the hierarchy is in control of one’s own action), everyone in the organisation can invest in ideas. This investment could be in terms of human or capital resources. The originator of the idea can, provided he/she is ready to take the associated risk, make this investment decision only if the idea is in the area that is under his/her control/influence.  Hence, if the idea is beyond the control of the originator of the idea, the first step for him/her is to share the idea with others. This first step of sharing idea, which seems to be straight forward, is shrouded with cultural elements.

There are several forces that stop or discourage a person from sharing his/her idea. I call these drags and leaders often refer to them as culture! Let us look at a few drags that usually discourage a person from sharing his/her ideas:

  • Drag #1: Will I be called stupid?
  • Drag #2: Do I want to work on the idea?
  • Drag #3: What happened last time when I gave an idea?
  • Drag #4: Is my company willing and capable of executing my idea?

Drag # 1

This is a major concern which is almost omnipresent. This fear makes employees hesitant to share their ideas. This fear has a form of ‘getting mocked’ from peers and takes the form of ‘disruptive idiot’ when it comes to superiors. This fear is rarely because the ideas are really stupid. What processes could be installed to get rid of this problem? In the current age of digital world this is very easy to solve. Imagine an idea management system that allows all employees to share their idea but when it comes to displaying/showing the ideas to other employees it doesn’t show the name of the author. It surely helps in assuaging the fear but takes away the excitement that one would like to see for new ideas. To make it interesting for employees, we could change the name of author randomly or build a few simple logics to effect this change. These process changes would make people focus on the idea and not the ideator. The fear of being called stupid would disappear immediately. But is this easy to implement? If we use the random approach to assign authors it wouldn’t be easy to implement because it would need a lot of courage from senior leaders who may find their names against a ‘not so good’ idea!

Having gotten rid of this drag, the employees will share some of their ideas but not all. We need to get rid of the second drag if we want them to share more number of ideas.

Drag # 2

Every innovation needs a combination of two important skills – Creativity, passion and impatience of a maverick and calmness, perseverance and resourcefulness of a Sherpa. Typically these two skills are quite opposite and very rare to be seen in one person. Therefore if organisations have a policy of assigning the responsibility of implementing the idea to the originator of the idea this drag comes into the play. The employee weighs his/her interest and ability to implement the idea before sharing it.

A simple process change that disassociates the two roles – Maverick and Sherpa and doesn’t expect them to be found in one person will solve this problem. The moment an idea is selected for implementation the role of the originator should get over and the organization should find a Sherpas would help in achieving the end state of the idea. Remember – Mavericks (Everest climbers) can be seldom successful without Sherpas and Sherpas enjoy supporting mavericks

Will the employees share all their idea now? Yes but only if they see that the system is ALIVE (responds thoughtfully and reacts immediately).  This leads us to Drag # 3

I would urge readers to think (and send their responses) of processes that would help in reducing the effect of Drag # 3 and 4. I will share my views on these two drags in the next post.