Many innovation initiatives in organizations fail not because of vision or mission or people or even resources. Instead, culture is usually the thing that dooms an organization’s innovation team or department. Innovation isn’t like many other processes within and organization. Where most organization focus on repeatability, quantitative results, and manageability, innovation efforts are often the opposite—at least, in the beginning.
Innovation isn’t a process that flows lock-step like manufacturing, fulfillment, or finance. This is especially true where it’s excepted to generate unique, new offerings that generate exponential value (beyond the quantitative values of price and features). To be sure, innovation happens internally, with operational functions just as much as with customer-driven, market offerings. Innovation occurs throughout an organization. Yet, developing new processes, techniques, metrics, and offerings requires a process that allows for new ideas, prototyping, experimentation, and refinement. using proven quantitative business processes, like Six Sigma, is a sure route to failure when applied to qualitative efforts, like innovation. This creates cultural needs the many organizations never bother to address. The results, then, are missed opportunities, unrealistic expectations, and wasted efforts—sometimes leading to the cancellation of these efforts entirely.
There isn’t one kind of innovation and no company has to follow the same path or process. However, its imperative that an organization understands its culture as it applies to innovation and choose a path that will work for it (rather than against it). The research my co-authors did for our 2004 book, Making Meaning, showed some interesting differences in how different cultures approach innovation:
- 39% Dynamic Innovators
- 26% Creative Innovators
- 18% Structured Innovators
- 10% Ad Hoc Innovators
- 8% Innovation Outsourcers
Sadly, too many organizations choose the wrong approach—one that isn’t compatible with how they work. The point isn’t to choose which culture you like best but to identify the culture already inherent in your organization and plan accordingly. For example, Innovation Outsourcers just aren’t capable of taking innovation processes to a successful completion. It’s not possible to do in their culture. That’s OK because they innovate by purchasing innovations from others (often startups). That’s not an indictment of their culture, it’s an admission of what works for them (and doesn’t).
This is echoed in the research for The Catalyst, an excellent book by Leidtka, Rosen, and Wiltbank. In it, they show that, too often, the characteristics and behaviors required to succeed in an intrapreneurially venture are exactly those that are punishable by the organization as out-of-bounds behavior. These include: hiding budget, secretly working on projects after they’ve been cancelled, falsifying progress, etc. in order to protect a project from the wrong kind of attention or scrutiny before its ready to be shared with others in the organization. This is a common problem and one that speaks to surrounding thee efforts with the right culture,
In addition to these distinct cultures, how the entire organization is engaged in innovation is critical—especially for Dynamic and Creative Innovators. Innovation efforts can (and, ultimately, should) live anywhere within an organization (and, ideally, in more than more place). However, who is engaged and where the leadership lives determines the outcomes and their success. For example, when innovation only or primarily lives within marketing, it’s easy for it to become just a hollow message (like “greenwashing” but for innovation). When it lives in product development, it can impact what gets made but unless its supported further up, it may always be at the mercy of other priorities (that often neutralize its impacts). When it’s lead and supported from the part, it can impact all parts of an organization, reaping huge, ongoing benefits.
But, the departments involved have an impact regardless. Innovation often threatens “business as usual,” which often creates push-back from competition forces within an organization (especially for resources). When companies can’t bring themselves to compete against their own, current offerings, it often less to stagnation and they see outside offerings, like from startups, create alternatives that disrupt and even destroy the very sources of revenue they were trying to internally protect.
Innovation efforts are often stymied by the cultures within the HR and legal functions who are usually the last to be involved (if at all). Lawyers, by profession, are trained to reduce risk and little is more risky than innovation. Without legal resources understanding the goals, they can’t provide the appropriate level of guidance that supports innovation, rather than shuts it down. Likewise, human resources is the department charged with hiring the very people who are expected to do things differently. Unless they’re involved, these people never make it past the interview process and even if they’re hired, their incentives and rewards may be completely antithetical to their goals.
Tim Brown, the CEO of the renowned innovation firm, IDEO, once stated: “Great design doesn’t leave organizations untouched.” This speaks to the cultural impact, if its allowed to have effect, that these tools and processes can have on an organization. It’s part of the hidden value that these tools can bring to organizations.