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Strategies for Building and Supporting an Innovation Culture

March 1, 2013 15inno 3 Comments

We often hear that a company sets out to create a strong innovation culture. This very rarely succeeds and a key reason for this is that only two things can really change an ailing innovation culture for the better.

One is a truly burning platform. If your company is about to go down within a very short time, things can change and if the company survives there might be room for a better innovation culture. You get a chance for a full reset.

The other is the full support of the top executives and this is not just one or two who really understand innovation, but a clear majority led by the CEO. Unfortunately, this does not happen often.

So what can a corporate innovation team in companies that do not have a burning platform or a totally committed executive team do in order to improve their innovation culture.

Here you get some suggestions:

Embrace a bottom-up approach:

You need to get commitment from the top as well as the bottom (my TBX model). If you lack the former, then you can engage the employees and try to create a snowball effect in which more and more employees (followed by managers and perhaps even executives) get involved in innovation initiatives.

Here you need to look at initiatives related to intrapreneurship, business plan competitions and skunk works.

You might also enjoy these reads on employees and innovation: When Should Your Employees Be Innovators and Intrapreneurs? and The Careers of Innovation Leaders and Intrapreneurs

Understand the overall corporate strategy better:

We often hear that culture eats strategy for breakfast. However, this is not the case in this situation and thus we need to turn things around. One approach could be for corporate innovations team to gain a very solid understand of the overall corporate strategy, then identify a number of important corporate moves (near future) and try to pull the current innovation resources into this direction.

This could help bring more awareness, recognition and perhaps even respect to the innovation team just for the efforts and in particular if this results in some early wins. Over time this can help change the culture for the better.

Don’t copy Google or Apple:

A corporate culture is almost carved in stone during the early years of the company and it takes disruptive events or efforts to change it significantly. Thus, it is quite dangerous to be inspired by things like Google’s 20% project in which employees can work on their own projects for 20% of the time.

This worked at Google in the early years (not even sure it works anymore at Google), but it will be very difficult to implement this concept in a culture that is not used to this. The mindset and processes needed to support this are simply not in place.

Lots of people also bring up Apple and their ability to bring game-changing innovation to market as a source of inspiration. However, Apple is a very unique company that is hard to copy and this has a lot to do with Steve Jobs. Furthermore, it is also difficult to get a good understanding on how Apple innovates, as they don’t share much about their efforts and initiatives.

Focus on a single business unit:

If you work in large multinational company, you most likely have pockets of the “right” innovation culture within the company. You could try to identify these pockets and then try to secure full commitment from the leadership here and work together to develop and launch strong initiatives. If this works well, then you can build further throughout the company with similar initiatives.

Step up the communication efforts:

Every company already has some good initiatives going on and a corporate innovation team can use this to start building the perception that the company already is innovative although there is lots of room for improvement. You can check out this article: Great Innovators are Great Communicators

Educate upwards:

It is the responsibility for corporate innovation teams to educate their executives. Many teams miss out on this or they do not really know how to do this.

The challenge is to find the ways that for works in your given situation. You might be lucky enough that your executives want to learn and then you can set-up a training program. If they are not really that interested, then you need to figure out how to trigger them. This often involves identifying ways in which the executives can benefit personally from a stronger innovation culture.

Leave for a better company:

The last resort, which I expect will be used by many as the economy kicks into higher gear again is to get a new job and try to make things happen in a more receptive environment. However, as this might sound luring, please have in mind that a huge majority of companies deal with the same kind of problems as those you are trying to escape. You might end up being disappointed.

You might also find some inspiration in these reads:

P&G’s Innovation Culture

Developing an Internal Culture that Promotes Open Innovation (Philips and Solvay)

Thoughts on Google’s 20% Time

Let me know what you think of this and if you can suggest other initiatives.

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Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. Hector A. Iglesias says:

    Dear Stefan: A very clear work. When we come up with innovations in global companies, this is mainly done in the headquarters, where are specific Departments doing this job. In the case of the affiliates there is little room for innovation due to several reasons: reduced resources both monetary and human, the struggle to survive in innflationay scenarios. The work done in these affiliates is mainly to adapt the recipes to local taste and local ingredients. The only innovation that sometimes occur is regarding processes.
    Best regards – Héctor

  2. Tom_Burky says:

    Hi Stefan, great article with clear points and informative links. I whole heartedly agree with the two scenarios that drive innovation culture change. As you have mentioned in other articles, I hope that we start to see the culture shift occur as a generational change rather than having to wait for crisis intervention…but people are people.

  3. [...] programs such as Google’s 20% time or Apple’s approach to innovation. Be careful! – and check this post : Strategies for Building and Supporting an Innovation [...]