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Creating a culture for workplace innovation

The good news about innovation is that you as a manager intuitively know and accept that innovation holds the key to your company’s long-term survival and success. You also secretly hope that in some way you will come to work one morning and your company will be innovative. ​

The bad news is that innovation won’t happen on its own. Innovation – referred to as the introduction of new and improved ways of doing things at work – needs to be intentional, deliberate and planned for1. The innovative behaviours that you would like from your employees are purposeful. It takes energy, positiveness and commitment from all levels of staff to make it happen.

Edgar Schein described an organisation’s culture as the shared values, beliefs and practices of the people within the organisation – it reflects the way in which they go about conducting their day-to-day business2. In my work with organisations around creating a culture of innovation I uncovered several shared values, beliefs and practices around innovation.

If I listen to managers talking about innovation in their organisations, I often hear them emphasising one word, and that is “ideas”. Consider how often we hear our executives say: “We want our people to come up with new and innovative ideas.” Although an important part of innovation, it is unfortunately only half of the story. 

Innovation can be thought of as two related processes. The first part of innovation is coming up with new ideas – ideas that will eventually benefit the organisation; ideas that will improve the way in which people do their work or serve their clients; ideas that will introduce that new product that will take your business to the next level of performance.

The second part of innovation, and by far the most difficult part, has to do with the implementation of those new ideas. So we can see that by only emphasising the importance of ideas managers inadvertently influence their employees to develop mind-sets which equate innovation merely with “ideas”. 

In doing so, managers form a lopsided culture around innovation. We know that an organisation’s culture is created by what managers talk about, what they emphasise, and what they measure. It is by this very same process that an innovative culture is created. Today, managers mostly talk about the importance of employees sharing their ideas for improvement; they even go so far as to measure the number of ideas per employee or per work group and reward employees for the voicing of their ideas. However, to be successful in creating an innovative culture, managers should start to talk, measure and reward the successful implementation of new ideas. Only then can we talk of a truly innovative culture. A company with a thousand brilliant ideas, is just that – a company with a thousand brilliant ideas. On their own, ideas will not add value to the company. It is the implementation of those ideas that will bring about the added value.

When I ask managers and employees to talk to me about what they understand by the word “innovation” in their company, most of their answers reflect the impression that innovation is all about the next “big idea” – be it a product, a system or any other big thing that will help the company to become more profitable. Innovation is thought of as the domain of a few clever people sitting somewhere in some quiet part of the organisation where they work on that next “big idea”.

If we want to establish a truly innovative culture, we should change our mind-set about innovation throughout the organisation so that everyone (managers and employees) understands that innovation is not the domain of a privileged few, but that innovation is about mobilising the innovative potential of every employee in the business. We need a critical mass of our people to think about the business, to be aware of where and how things could be changed for the better, and to be willing to take the initiative, not only to provide us with a solution (idea) but actually to take that idea right through to its implementation. Clearly innovation is not only about the next “big” idea; it also refers to the everyday innovative work behaviours of all employees suggesting and implementing ideas that are smaller in scale, more common and more non-technologically driven. It is about identifying those annoying daily hassles that we encounter on a daily basis and fixing them.

Lastly, I found that most employees think that their role in the innovation process is to come up with new ideas and that it is the role of the manager to implement those ideas. By having this mind-set we run into many problems, such as:
  • Employees do not develop the discipline and skills set that go along with the implementation of ideas.
  • We reduce the accountability of employees – since they can provide an idea and then walk away from it.
  • Real learning and talent development does not take place – since learning comes from implementation.
  • We add to the burden of management – they now sit with the added pressure of implementing ideas.
  • We create a culture of helplessness – since employees invariably get little feedback about what happened with their ideas. They then develop the mind-set that it is of no use to come up with ideas because they don’t materialise.
From the points above we see that we cannot separate the responsibilities of idea suggestion and implementation. We need to find a way where there is joint responsibility for the voicing of ideas and the implementation thereof. In successful innovation cultures we see that innovation is supported by an innovative environment that is reinforced and sustained by individual leadership practices that start at the first line of management and go right through to the top of the organisation. These aspects will be covered in the next article.

1M.A. West, C.S. Borrill, J.F. Dawson, F. Brodbeck, D.A. Shapiro & B. Haward. 2003. Leadership clarity and team innovation in health care. The Leadership Quarterly. 
2Edgar H. Schein. 1999. The corporate culture survival guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Willlie Visser (5).jpg 
Dr Willie Visser is the director of the Centre for Positive People @ Work. His areas of expertise are employee engagement, development of innovative cultures and executive resilience. He recently entered into a strategic alliance with USB-ED to enhance the offering of USB-ED to its clients. 

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