The Easiest Way to Maximize the Return on Your Innovation Investments

By Raphael Louis Vitón | Mar 27, 2018

Make sure your innovation initiative is connected to your culture.

If you are investing heavily in building innovation competencies and investing in rapid adaptation, it is usually because of one of two reasons:

  • You are behind the curve in a slow growth industry or have a slow growth position in the market and you need to quickly catch up and adapt.
  • Or you are in a high velocity, high growth organization, trying to maintain agility, momentum and speed with which you adapt and lead the market.

In both of these situations, IF you are investing in innovation to support your mission and fulfill your “next level” business strategy, THEN you will want to protect that investment and drive a satisfactory return on innovation.
Both scenarios require rapid adaptation to changing circumstances. Most leaders only become aware of their culture when they have to adapt to something (as Edgar Schein would say) — otherwise, it’s just there.
Innovation is all about adapting (and improving on the current level foundation), so you will run into major culture challenges, depending on how much of your current culture is constructive. A constructive culture will allow the organization to proactively adapt and excel in a changing marketplace (versus just survive).

Measure your culture baseline so that you can measure improvement.

You do not need an assessment to confirm that you are not innovative. You need useful data to help you better understand why and how your business culture (and/or your business climate) is helping or holding you back. Culture and climate are always doing both — it’s always BOTH.
You need the outcome of the assessment to help provide a common language and valid measurement along with visibility into how culture dynamics show up differently across teams, groups and locations. It is most effective when you combine group or team efforts with a validated, reliable culture model so the team has visibility into the specifics (beyond anecdotal) to be more actionable and useful for the culture.
Culture is built and changed through shared learning and mutual experience. The assessment outcome is used (on day one) to engage the organization in shared learning as it relates to the connection between culture and business performance.
It doesn’t necessarily need to be a survey, but you need some kind of a proven model that connects the dots, similarly to the one behind the strategic culture survey (i.e., OCI/OEI circumplex), that can help give you a stronger, more accurate understanding, dimensionalization and distinction of culture so you can intervene differently than you ever have before.
All the other surveys you’re doing (e.g., engagement surveys, morale) will only provide a limited “connecting-the-dots” benefit and therefore only deliver marginal culture improvement opportunities.

An innovative culture is the new minimum standard for performance improvement.

Innovation is necessary to break through internal culture and external market challenges that may exist. The more that innovation is a natural part of a culture, the more effective an organization will be at maintaining or improving performance in a changing marketplace.
Culture doesn’t just “eat strategy for lunch” — culture eats EVERYTHING.
Culture is the unique and sustainable driver of performance. We want our culture to become more innovative (e.g., entrepreneurial, adaptive, agile, collaborative, creative) so that we can deal with all the demands of a changing marketplace.
Your culture is always helping and holding back performance in unique ways — always.

Approach innovation like a journey, not a project.

It’s a learning journey as the organization evolves norms or “unwritten rules” that are part of the culture and modifies aspects of the work climate (systems, structures, leadership approaches, etc.) to support the change.
The journey should be a series of phases or business prototypes. The organization is focused on one or more specific outcomes that innovation will help deliver. It might be growth, improved customer experience or another top priority.
We assess the work culture and climate to understand how they will help us achieve the outcome we need and how they will hold back results or progress.
We capture “key learnings” from the assessment as an input to revising or refining our innovation strategies for a specific priority so that we dramatically increase the likelihood of success.
Part of the planning is engaging the rest of the organization in new ways to accelerate results in the priority area. A huge amount of discipline and consistency is needed, but it nearly always results in accelerated performance in the targeted area.
We then capture what we learned from the initial phase of improvement as an input to the next phase, which may be all about the same performance priority or a different one. This continued learning process is part of the journey and helps accelerate innovation and effectiveness with each phase.
We also combine this “on-the-job,” improved engagement and execution approach (or business prototype) with the development of people (individually and collectively), starting with top leadership. Leadership needs and wants to understand how they may be unintentionally reinforcing the current state.
We refer to this as the “double helix” approach for culture. We support the organization with intertwining, simultaneous prototyping across these two fronts:

  • One strand of the helix is driving shared learning and tangible results (leading indicators) from the business priority (execution).
  • The other strand is the development (transformation) of leaders and managers.

Both are needed for effective culture change, sustainable innovation and performance improvement.

If culture change is hard for you, then you’re doing it wrong.

Start smart; don’t “just start.”
It’s easier to get started when you have accurately diagnosed the culture gap and can align around an actionable “FROM – TO” case for change.
Start small; don’t “go big.”
The reality is that an organization does not need to understand the entire journey to get started. The initial work to define the purpose and need for improved innovation can be combined with some thorough assessment and planning work and completed in 90 days or less.
Start quick; don’t “slow your roll.”
It’s ideal to combine that “quick-start” approach with a leadership development plan so that personal transformation is combined with the innovation and organization transformation, as we discussed in the “double helix” analogy. You should expect to see meaningful and measurable results in six months or less, but the sustainable culture change obviously takes longer.
Start strong; don’t “go it alone.”
Contact us for a discussion about your unique innovation and culture. Every journey is different, but the principles to connect culture, innovation and performance are the same. This is a specialized domain with effective, emerging best practices that all executives need help with. Your responsibility is to ask for the right help. Innovation and change are easier when you and your team learn how to minimize the unnecessary suffering and permanent damage (that result from doing it wrong). You won’t figure this out on your own until it is too late. Don’t choose to learn this the hard way.

This article was produced in collaboration with Tim Kuppler from Human Synergistics.

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