Monday, June 29, 2015

Culture Trumps Concepts

When many people hear the word “Innovation” they think of a service that created a category: Xerox or FedEx. Or, they think of one that made bold, brilliant moves to earn a leadership position in an emerging space: Google, Facebook, Uber and Airbnb.

They may claim that innovation is one of their organization’s core values or core pillars, but no one there can quite articulate how their formal innovation programs works.

Or, you hear bitterness in their voice: “They tried Innovation, once.” This is a composite sketch of many similar stories.

They procured modest funding, were given some time away from their other role, and were charged to bring back something big, something disruptive. On the organization’s dime they went to a few conferences, read a few books, even took a workshop. By retooling themselves they reoriented how they see the business, their mental model of reality. Worlds of possibilities began to open to them – new products, services, adaptations to the business model and, yes, a new platform that would position the organization for optimum growth fueled by radically disrupting the industry.

Rife with potential and inspired by this license to innovate, they morphed together several methods and tools. They got fresh, first-hand insights from the people who use their products and services. They enrolled a few others to join this positive, creative revolution inside the company. The team was electrified, intent on creating not only some cool things, but by the prospect of really helping people have a great experience with their company’s products and services.

The initial business case seemed irrefutable. With the zeal of a business prophet a presentation was given to senior leadership. A portfolio of concepts that could, with modest investment, change the course of the organization for the better were ready to implement.

Then, all of the momentum crashed into a wall. “We’d like to thank you and your team for this new thinking,” says one executive. “We’ve invested a lot into this program, but now is just not the time to actually try these ideas in the market.”

“From this point, just go back to your former role full-time,” says the crestfallen one’s director.

From this point in the organization’s history, this is the perception of Innovation – a few rebel cells in an otherwise orderly body. Yet in reality, the concepts were valid, tethered to the larger context of the company’s identity and strategy. Generating valuable ideas was not the problem.

If you want a value-generating innovation program, you have to first craft a culture that accepts innovation before the commission of a project. Start with the executive team.

Culture first, then concepts – otherwise, you’ll have a business that thinks it has checked the Innovation Box, proven it’s just a fad, and gets back to the same old things, a calcifying culture.

Michael Graber, managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, can be reached at southerngrowthstudio.com

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