Using processes to shape the ‘Innovation culture’ – Part 1

posted by Ravi Arora February 13, 2017

In the previous two posts I discussed why leaders feel helpless about the improving the innovation culture. I also explained what the culture is and how it can be shaped (cultured) by using processes over a very long time. Many readers asked for examples of the stumbling blocks in innovation culture and how processes could help in overcoming them. Many such examples have been explained in the book that I wrote, but I am summarizing two examples in this post and another two in my next post to complete the discussion on innovation culture.

Think of the life-cycle of a seed that germinates and grows into a flowering tree or consider a new born baby that grows into an adult. Both, the seed and the baby, need different types of nourishment and environment in different stages of their growth. Similarly, cultural elements that nurture innovations vary from the time when an idea takes birth in the mind of an individual all the way to the stage when the organization gets the return from the innovation.

Let me take one of the early stages of the innovation life cycle (ideation) and explain the importance of a few cultural elements.

An idea takes birth in the mind of an individual. The organization thereafter needs to invest in the idea to get to the 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 organization can invest in ideas. This investment could be in terms of human or financial resources. The originator of the idea can make this investment only if the idea falls clearly in the area under his/her control/influence. This is rarely true as typically the implementation of ideas need involvement of several others beyond the control/influence of the ideator. Therefore, the first step for the ideator is to share the idea with others. This first step of sharing idea, which seems to be straight forward, needs the support of quite a few 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! Here are a few drags:

  • Drag #1: Will I be called stupid?
  • Drag #2: Do I want to work on my 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: Will I be called stupid?

This is almost an omnipresent concern. Employees fear of ‘getting mocked’ and being tagged as a ‘disruptive idiot’ by peers and superiors. How do you think we can shape the culture in which employees have no hesitation in sharing their ideas? What processes could be installed? In the current age of digital world this is much easier problem to address. Imagine an idea management system that allows employees to share their ideas, but the readers cannot find the name of the ideator! If this process takes away the excitement of employees, the system could allow them to create avatars of their choice!

While this process will assuage the fear of being mocked, employees will still not share all their ideas – we need to get rid of the second drag too!

Employees also have a fear of someone else stealing their idea. This fear gets developed if there are instances (and stories) of people taking credit of someone else’s idea. The above system would help in mitigating this fear and encourage employees to share and stamp their name on their ideas before someone else could (steal)!

Drag # 2: Do I want to work on my idea?

Ideas need creativity, but the implementation needs passion and impatience of a maverick and calmness, perseverance and resourcefulness of a Sherpa. Both these contrasting skills are difficult to fine in a person and rarely amongst the ideators who are creative. Therefore, if organizations have a policy of assigning the responsibility of implementing the idea to the originator of the idea, it works as a drag. The employee weighs his/her interest and capability before sharing the idea.

A simple process change that doesn’t necessitate the ideators to take on the responsibility to implement their ideas, will solve the problem. The moment an idea is selected for implementation the ideator name could be revealed and the ownership of the idea should transfer to the person who has control/influence of the area in which the idea needs to be implemented. Organization should then find the team of Sherpas and Mavericks to implement the idea. (Note: Mavericks (e.g. Everest climbers) are seldom successful without Sherpas and Sherpas have no role without mavericks)

Will the employees share all their ideas now? Yes, for a short period. Its long-term sustenance will depend on the presence of remaining two drags (Drag # 3 and 4)

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