Whenever I talk with executives about innovation, the most passionate discussion concerns the role of corporate culture.
Many leaders have clearly heard the advice that they must support a work style that encourages innovative thinking and action. Too often, we try to make this happen by simply declaring ourselves to be innovative in our statement of corporate values.
However, it takes a lot more than an executive memo to encourage new thinking. Cultural change is difficult, especially when a key measure of success includes accepting failure, critical to any transformative work. As a first step we must distinguish between innovation as a value and innovation as a goal.
Very often I come across statements like this: “Innovation is the driving force of our team.” You wish. Speak to the team members and they are just as likely to tell you that their company is stolidly conservative and agonizingly risk-adverse. Speak to the leadership and they will tell you that of course we have a innovative culture - the teams just do not deliver enough innovation!
What’s going on in such cases? Typically, one finds that the corporate leaders really do want to see new work, but they have not backed up that wish up with actions to encourage and reward the necessary risk-taking and frequent failures which lead to innovation.
This problem in turn frequently arises from a confusion between goals and values.
Goals and Values
Goals are often financial: even if not strictly monetary, they should at least measure them. “We create delightful new products” is a goal. A little tricky, perhaps, but we can measure it, by counting products and tracking customers’ happiness with the result.
Values, on the other hand can be somewhat intangible and, one hopes, grounded in ethical or philosophical convictions. “Make Others Great,” “Be Humble,” “Take Responsibility.” These fine corporate values are inherently difficult to measure: one cannot easily reduce them to dollars and cents.
Of course, we may really, really want to hold “innovation” as a value. In our corporate hearts we may long for new ideas to inform every discussion. But you are not going to get there just by wishing it. First, you must make innovation a goal.
Own the goal
I sometimes say (only half joking) to our Qlik Labs in London that they disappoint me. Too many of their ideas prove valuable and useful and practical. They do not fail enough!
That is, however, only half a joke. A culture which truly encourages experimentation will, at some point, reward bold, imaginative efforts which don’t work out. Now, don’t get me wrong, please do reward the successful efforts, too!
The important point is to have corporate goals which measure innovation effort. How many new projects? How many are genuinely experimental in that they investigate new lines of business, new technologies, or new services? How many of these projects succeeded and failed?
Create goals like these, established and funded and measured and reported on. Soon enough you will look back on them and recognize that innovation drives a regular heartbeat of your business. Having done so, when you see those goals spontaneously picked up and set in new ways at every level of your organization, then you can reflect that indeed, you hold innovation as a core value.