Leading the journey towards innovation

5 march 2019


Cultural change is difficult. An organizational culture is like a social contract specifying the rules of membership. When leaders set out to change that culture, they are in a sense breaking that social contract. So, it’s only natural that people inside an organization, especially if they are thriving under the existing rules, resist.

Not only is cultural change difficult, most of the innovation strategies fail. According to Greg Satell that’s because innovation is, at its core, about solving problems and there are as many ways to innovate as there are types of problems to solve. There is no one “true” path to innovation. Yet all too often, organizations act as if there is. They lock themselves into one type of strategy and say:  “This is how we innovate.” It may work for a while, but eventually will catch up with them and then they find themselves locked into a set of solutions that don’t fit the problems they need to solve. Essentially, they become square-peg companies in a round-hole world and lose relevance. That’s why he created the Innovation Matrix that can help leaders identify the right type of strategy to solve a problem. And he does that by asking two questions: How well can we define the problem? And How well can we define the skill domain(s) needed to solve it? If you want to learn more, be sure to check out this article, in HBR

You got it right :-) 

For this week’s #ConnectWithContent it’s all about  innovation and innovative cultures. Despite all the time and money that is spent on innovation, it remains a frustrating pursuit in many companies and many initiatives fail... Why is it so hard to build and maintain the capacity to innovate? One thing’s for sure: the reasons go much deeper than the commonly cited cause: a failure to execute. The problem with innovation improvement efforts is rooted in the lack of an innovation strategy and because innovative cultures are widely misunderstood. That’s what we found in this first article we want to share with our HR community.

The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures

In the second article we want to share ”The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures” Gary Pisano states that that leading the journey of building an innovative culture is difficult and that it requires some specific actions: First, leaders must be very transparent with the organization about the harder realities of innovative cultures. Second, leaders must recognize that there are no shortcuts in building an innovative culture. Finally, because innovative cultures can be unstable, leaders need to be vigilant for signs of excess in any area and intervene to restore balance when necessary. 

You can read the entire article via this link or read the summary here, up to you :-)

Despite the fact that innovative cultures are desirable and that most leaders claim to understand what they entail, they are hard to create and sustain. 

How come? 

The reason, according to Gary P. Pisano is that innovative cultures are misunderstood. The easy-to-like behaviors that get all the attention are only one side of the coin, he states.

“A tolerance for failure requires an intolerance for incompetence. A willingness to experiment requires rigorous discipline. Psychological safety requires comfort with brutal candor. Collaboration must be balanced with individual accountability. And flatness requires strong leadership. That’s the innovation paradox!”

Tolerance for Failure but No Tolerance for Incompetence

Given that innovation involves the exploration of uncertain terrain, it is not surprising that a tolerance for failure is an important characteristic of innovative cultures. And yet for all their focus on tolerance for failure, innovative organizations are intolerant of incompetence. 

They set exceptionally high performance standards for their people. They recruit the best talent they can. Exploring risky ideas that ultimately fail is fine, but mediocre technical skills, sloppy thinking, bad work habits, and poor management are not. 

The truth is that a tolerance for failure requires having extremely competent people. 

Building a culture of competence requires clearly articulating expected standards of performance and communicating those standards continuously. Unfortunately many organizations fall short in this regard.  Maintaining a healthy balance between tolerating productive failures and rooting out incompetence is not easy. 

Willingness to Experiment but Highly Disciplined

Organizations that embrace experimentation are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. They do not pretend to have all the answers up front or to be able to analyze their way to insight. They experiment to learn rather than to produce an immediately marketable product or service. 

A willingness to experiment, though, does not mean working like some third-rate abstract painter who randomly throws paint at a canvas. 

Discipline-oriented cultures select experiments carefully on the basis of their potential learning value, and they design them rigorously to yield as much information as possible relative to the costs. They establish clear criteria at the outset for deciding whether to move forward with, modify, or kill an idea. And they face the facts generated by experiments. Being more disciplined about killing losing projects makes it less risky to try new things. Disciplined experimentation is a balancing act. 

Psychologically Safe but Brutally Candid

Decades of research on this concept by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson indicate that psychologically safe environments not only help organizations avoid catastrophic errors but also support learning and innovation. If people are afraid to criticize, openly challenge superiors’ views, debate the ideas of others, and raise counterperspectives, innovation can be crushed.

We all love the freedom to speak our minds without fear
—we all want to be heard—
but psychological safety is a two-way street.

Unvarnished candor is critical to innovation because it is the means by which ideas evolve and improve. To challenge too strongly is to risk looking like you’re not a team player. But when it comes to innovation, the candid organization will outperform the nice one every time. Then again, “brutally honest” organizations are not the most comfortable environments in which to work. To outsiders and newcomers, the people may appear aggressive or hard-edged. And building a culture of candid debate is challenging in organizations where people tend to shy away from confrontation or where such debate is viewed as violating norms of civility. Senior leaders need to set the tone through their own behavior. 

Collaboration but with Individual Accountability

People who work in a collaborative culture view seeking help from colleagues as natural, regardless of whether providing such help is within their colleagues’ formal job descriptions. They have a sense of collective responsibility.

But too often, collaboration gets confused with consensus. 

And consensus is poison for rapid decision making and navigating the complex problems associated with transformational innovation. Ultimately, someone has to make a decision and be accountable for it. 

An accountability culture is one where individuals are expected to make decisions and own the consequences.

There is nothing inherently inconsistent about a culture that is both collaborative and accountability-focused. Accountability and collaboration can be complementary, and accountability can drive collaboration. 

Flat but Strong Leadership
An organizational chart gives you a pretty good idea of the structural flatness of a company but reveals little about its cultural flatness—how people behave and interact regardless of official position.
In culturally flat organizations, people are given wide latitude to take actions, make decisions, and voice their opinions. Culturally flat organizations can typically respond more quickly to rapidly changing circumstances because decision making is decentralized and closer to the sources of relevant information. They tend to generate a richer diversity of ideas than hierarchical ones, because they tap the knowledge, expertise, and perspectives of a broader community of contributors.

Lack of hierarchy, though, does not mean lack of leadership.

Paradoxically, flat organizations require stronger leadership than hierarchical ones. Getting the balance right between flatness and strong leadership is hard on top management and on employees throughout the organization. For senior leaders, it requires the capacity to articulate compelling visions and strategies (big-picture stuff) while simultaneously being adept and competent with technical and operational issues. For employees, flatness requires them to develop their own strong leadership capacities and be comfortable with taking action and being accountable for their decisions.

How can HR contribute?

Should HR drive the change through the alignment of practice with innovation as a business goal? Should HR facilitate innovation in shaping attitude to risk? 
Or should HR drive innovation culture and take the lead by becoming chief adaptability officer?

At HRbuilders we are convinced that HR can contribute to innovation activities along a wide spectrum. And we have a large community of seasoned HR professionals ready to take on this role and helping you close the innovation gap.

Reach out to our #dreamteam and we are happy to connect you with the ultimate freelance HR innovation manager.

Talk to you next week


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