Innovation suffocates in a culture of mediocrity. Here’s how to breathe life into company culture to compete for the future.
Ideas are a dime a dozen. Everyone seems to have one or more. I just wish that more organizations would appreciate how plentiful and beneficial ideas are to the future of their business.
The challenges are all too common. Often, ideas are shared in fleeting moments with the same zeal as observing the weather. Once expressed they recede from view, a moment and opportunity passed, with life returning to its normal, unvaried routine. Also common is the lack of people or processes to do anything with ideas when they are specifically shared with the intention of causing effect or change.
In a world where the expression of ideas is a commodity but the consideration and implementation of them is a scarce resource, how do we create a more inviting culture that fosters their transformation from concept to manifestation?
To Err is Human, To Create, Divine
From startups to global enterprises I see two things. One, I’ve observed the voicing of ideas that immediately vanish into the ether of complacence, politics or blatant disregard. Two, I’ve witnessed the escape of morale where employees refuse to share ideas to improve or innovate or are uninspired to do so. In each condition, fervor wanes and mediocrity prevails. Weary spirits become a symptom of a diseased culture where hierarchy, process, and survival suffocate a democracy of ideas.
When ideas are extinguished, the ability to evolve and grow is hindered or completely crippled. The compromise of competing for today is simply business as usual. To compete and thrive over time though necessitates a culture of innovation, one where ideas are expressed but also shaped, enhanced, or combined into practice. This is the difference between any company that manages itself toward common goals and efficiencies and one that leads people toward creative destruction. Said another way, the difference between competing for now and for the future is a keen sense and supporting infrastructure to improve or re-invent the way people work and also what it is they create—even at the risk of competing against legacy processes and systems.
Change Happens to You or Because of You
If companies do not disrupt themselves, disruption will eventually disrupt them.
In any risk averse culture, this premise sounds absurd of course. Why would anyone challenge the status quo? Why would anyone dare to think different? As many executives I’ve worked with initially would point out, “We are profitable today why would we rock the boat?”
The number of answers or excuses voiced to these questions is beyond great, it’s blinding.
- Technology is affecting customer behavior to the point where expectations and values are becoming radically different than what you stand for today.
- Technology and changes in behavior are opening and closing customer touch points.
- Today’s executives are out of touch with how younger customers and employees think, relate, and communicate.
- Workforces are aging and are not challenged to learn new skills or systems.
- Millennials are overwhelming personnel balances and creating conflicts in how they work versus how they’re trained to work.
- Supply chains are squeezed as businesses compete in real-time.
- Competitive threats are rising out of nowhere as anyone with an idea can use new platforms such as Kickstarter and indiegogo to generate customer awareness and support.
The list goes on. This is why any and all companies must accept that this is the end of business as usual. To survive, they must find leverage in digital Darwinism. They must accept that technology and society are evolving faster than current infrastructures, and philosophies, can adapt. Those that refuse to change now and over time will ultimately succumb to digital Darwinism by intentionally competing for irrelevance. Times change. So must you.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Swords: The New Kodak Moment
Remember that “Kodak moment?” Well, you’re among the last generation to appreciate its true meaning. The Kodak moment was powerful. The words alone struck an emotional connection with human beings around the world. It evoked a warming sense of nostalgia. Kodak’s leadership team however didn’t share the same appreciation for what the Kodak moment could mean to future generations.
Rather than compete for relevance, Kodak ultimately fell to digital Darwinism by becoming irrelevant to new generations of consumers. This evolutionary milestone is particularly sad as Kodak was home to some of the most forward-thinking scientists around digital imaging who helped the company secure industry-leading patents. Competing for the future wasn’t part of the company’s everyday culture unfortunately. Innovation wasn’t woven into the DNA of Kodak’s culture. The executive team was spoiled by profitability and managed business decisions and people accordingly. Ironically, executives feared that digital would cannibalize its lucrative film business. Rather than invest in creative destruction and compete for the next generation of customers, the industry evolved without it and sealed Kodak’s fate.
Now the “Kodak moment” is something students and executives will examine as “that moment when businesses failed to embrace creative destruction to compete for the future.”
The key to innovation is to question everything, challenge convention, and relentlessly pursue relevance.
Practicing without a Safety Bet
For decades, businesses implemented proactive strategies to become recession proof when the economy turned. When companies batten down the hatches, they tend to insulate themselves from any potential storm as a matter of survival. The act of survival is seemingly safe but it also invites new threats from more courageous competitors.
Playing safe seems to be just that…it’s safe. In a time of persistent disruption however, playing safe may in fact contribute to a significant loss of momentum. Essentially, people stop pushing forward and when that happens, fate pushes back. Why? Leadership cowers to programmatic measures that are as predictable as they are menacing. Spending is cut. Talent is released. Decisions are synonymous with conservatism. Risk aversion is pervasive. Confidence is peddled for vulnerability.
Disruption doesn’t discriminate. The truth is that digital Darwinism and creative destruction are good economic phenomenon for us as consumers, stakeholders and investors. The question however, is which side of markets do you wish to be on, those that are losing or gaining? It’s usually one or the other.
WTF! [What’s the Future] of Business?
Technology isn’t going away.
Change is inevitable.
The unfamiliar eclipses what it is we think we know at accelerated paces.
Nonetheless, what we know isn’t what we need to know. Familiarity, process, and our comfort zones are only holding us back.
Leadership, innovation, adaptation and resilience are traits of today’s successful businesses and also the foundation for mere survival in the near future.
To compete for the future starts with investing in a culture that promotes productive thinking, exploration and experimentation. That’s just the beginning however. Executives need to believe that managing teams towards goals is one thing. It is leading people in new directions that surface new opportunities. To do so requires vision, transparency and trust.
Innovation is about shifting from a management culture to that of leadership, one where people are empowered to contribute to the destiny of the organization as well as their own.
Everyone must take part…everyone. This includes management becoming accountable for harvesting and introducing new ideas and talent. HR programs require modernization to recognize and reward people for the contributions that go above and beyond their current job descriptions. Older decision makers should learn from younger employees to gain insight and empathy into new generations and how they think and what they value. Most importantly, risk shouldn’t go overlooked. It must not dangle over the heads of would be intrapreneuers.
If we do not empower intrapreneurialism we either nurture the unexceptional or push people toward external entrepreneurialism, which benefits everyone but you.
Risk management is no longer an executive’s leverage. While risk should always be considered, they’re guardrails in the end. Governance, legal, and decision-making as it exists was defined for an era of business that is gone or ephemeral. Creativity, ingenuity, and inspiration are to be celebrated moving forward. The hardest part is recognizing that the culture that lives today is actually stifling breakthroughs.
Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of incredible and not so incredible startups. I’ve also fought political and emotional battles within some of the largest enterprise organizations around the world. I’ve won much more than I’ve lost. But in every case, I’ve learned and grown. More importantly, I observed a series of traits that emerged as organizations successfully embarked upon a journey of change.
As time and experience progressed, I compared these recurring traits to highly regarded brands known for their reputation of innovation and leadership. Companies such as Nike, Virgin, Tata Group, Tesla, Google, Burberry, GE, and many others, each share common characteristics that we can study, embody, and integrate into other adaptive organizations to transform. The goal is to more effectively compete for the future by striving to earn relevance today. The goal is to also recognize people and how they can help build an alternative yet complimentary destiny. Allow me to introduce you to the common pillars of innovation to build a foundation for tomorrow…today.
The Pillars of Innovation
Articulate Vision and Inspire: Organizations cannot move in a new direction unless that vision is conceived, articulated and motivating. People, customers and employees, they need something to believe in…something to follow. That starts with communicating where we want to go and why it’s important and different.
Form an Innovation Management Team: True leadership is a rare trait. Often top executives need to band together to create alignment and build the infrastructure necessary to support a culture of innovation. This team is responsible for establishing the charter and working with the key department heads necessary to research, prioritize, plan, test and learn, and establish best practices. More importantly, its responsible for integrating insights and new programs and processes throughout the organization.
Promote Reverse Mentoring: There’s a disconnect today between older generations and the Millennials pervading the workforce. Older managers feel that younger generations have unrealistic expectations and they haven’t paid the same dues they did to earn success. At the same time, younger generations live life differently and can’t understand why others just don’t take the time to better understand their “day in the life.” Innovative companies such as GE promote reverse-mentoring to foster understanding, create mutual empathy and promote collaboration between disparate generations of team members.
Optimize Decision-Making: Decision-making is the chokehold of corporate creativity. Instead, evaluate how to optimize decisions and also introduce paths for ideas to earn consideration, development and expansion. This may start with the innovation management team, but ultimately, decision-making around ideas and creativity will benefit the entire enterprise and thus requires top-down implementation. Empowerment is key here. Additionally, a RACI chart is renewed or created to account for new scenarios and the people, systems, and rights to make things happen.
Invest in People and Processes: People are a core asset to your organization. At the same time, without the right training, processes, systems, or management, people can also become the hindrance. Everyday businesses practices, how employees are trained and reviewed, and also the time they spend on day-to-day projects versus thinking about or pursuing new ideas are the keystone to a stronger creative and collaborative foundation. We are all students now and learning is how we stay competitive.
Employ Technology as an Enabler: With the rise of social, mobile, real-time, cloud and every new technology trend, organizations are often faced with a confusing and overwhelming set of options to consider for implementation. Some though get caught in the technology trap by fooling themselves that they would become irrelevant without the adoption of everything in some way. This is only partly true. Technology is often the right thing to “do” but the “why” it’s introduced is often the missing ingredient to success. Technology alone though isn’t the answer. Technology is merely a means to facilitate connections, provide direction, learn, collaborate, and remind people why they (and you) matter… their way. It’s tempered with empathy, purpose and aspiration, to do things better than how we did them yesterday. Technology must be an enabler of the greater vision, purpose and bottom line business objectives.
Incentivize Ideas and Reward Risk: Encourage courage is something that most risk-averse organizations chastise or discourage. Ideas are precious and the ecosystem where they are introduced can be fragile. Make it fun or lucrative to introduce them and also spotlight them as part of everyday business practices. The most innovative businesses take ideation further by instilling it in everyday job responsibilities and performance management (up and down). Everyone is expected to contribute and managers are expected to cultivate and consider ideas. At the same time, innovative companies find a way to reward risk. This is key in organizations where corporate “whack-a-mole” prevents people from thinking outside of the box for fear of punishment or ridicule.
Teach Creative Thinking Up/Down: Creative thinking is something that isn’t relegated to just the chosen few. Everyone has the means within them to uncover a problem and solve it or see opportunities when others cannot or will not. Workshops, offsites, events, they must inspire employees, executives and leaders alike. I refer to this approach as the dilemma’s innovator. It’s a combination of design thinking and problem solving that allows for people to not only address quandaries but also create or surface something new. This must be taught as the process for evaluating empathy and context is different than the traditional critical thinking approach many organizations promote today. Most importantly, time is needed to help people think differently. Whether its 5 hours, 10, or 20 hours a month, give employees time to learn something new or develop a concept outside of their day-to-day duties.
Reward Contribution: HR needs a seat in the Innovation Management Team. Contributions must be rewarded. Risk takers deserve recognition. You’re asking people to do something beyond, in most cases, the reason why they’re where they are today. Reward employees for their contributions and also spotlight those that contribute every step of the way. Share insights and best practices. Reward systems and responsibilities will need updating to accommodate new processes and barometers for success.
Foster Collaboration: Enterprise social networks, social media, collaboration tools, these are all designed to help people better work together. In many cases, businesses remove traditional barriers that separate work groups allowing for people who don’t normally see or talk to one another have the chance to comingle. Google will often say that its MicroKitchens in every building allow for sparks of ingenuity that wouldn’t have happened if two or more people weren’t getting a snack at the same time. Give them reason to do so and expand engagement beyond traditional work groups. Bring people together who share common passions and interests and give them the space and the time to work together.
Fail Forward: Ideas are more common than the successes they’re intended to enliven. Without a surplus of meritorious candidates, the vine of ideas will inevitably whither. I understand that “failing” is a difficult belief to personify. After all, failing means just that, to be unsuccessful in meeting goals or standards. Nevertheless, fear of failure contributes to risk aversion. Failing doesn’t have to carry such negative overtones. Failing really means that you tried something and it didn’t work out. At least you tried. As long as you tried and learned…quickly…then you can move on. If it wasn’t for trying something new, we would be forever stuck in routines. And routines lead to complacency or irrelevance. Truth is that people will remember your hits over your misses. Edison failed 10,000 times before he made the electric light. The best companies find and communicate success even in failure. It’s how we learn.
Manage Accountability: In a culture of innovation, accountability is critical. It’s not just employees who are responsible for generating ideas and improving skills and expertise, managers too are measured by how well they cultivate ideas, spark imagination, and encourage collaboration. More so, managers are answerable for how well they promote ideas toward experimentation and implementation programs. Leaders lead. And for a healthy culture of innovation, one that strives to earn relevance, solve problems, and create new and even improbable opportunities and solutions, managers and executives are held to the same if not higher standards as everyone else. Eventually hierarchies fall in favor of flatter, more nimble models that move beyond just competing. This gives way for product strategies and also the way people work together, to become more than just competitive, they become the industry standard.
The Change Heard Round the World
Innovation begins with an idea on how to improve something that may or may not be broken. The secret to change is that it can arise from anywhere led by anyone. Optimism and hope are contagious. To fight for resilience and transformation falls upon those who believe that the path to success is not charted by any one single route or any one person. Instead, the journey toward triumph is actually fought for and realized as you go. It takes change agents and revolutionaries. It takes you.
Remember, it’s the little things that unfold as significant discoveries and alterations over time. When you look backward you will see you’re achievements. But, you cannot just look backward to move forward. Instead, recognize that the path toward differentiation, value and meaningful relationships is oft met by winds of resistance. If this was easy, anyone could do it. That’s why the future of business is up to you.
Don’t look back; you’re not going that way.
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