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Creating a culture of innovation

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Innovation is an outcome, not something you do. It's not something you have. The best way I know to explain this is, “Innovation isn't a badge that we can bestow upon ourselves. It's a badge that can only be bestowed upon us by our customers.”

Cris Beswick knows a thing or two about creating a culture of innovation. He’s an accomplished author, speaker, adviser, and the co-founder of Outcome, an innovation consultation business that offers a variety of strategies that innovate not just systems and processes, but also the corporate culture. Cris authored the book, The Road To Innovation, where he describes the seven core areas of innovative focus: strategy, community, people, environment, creativity, risk, and leadership.

Cris recently joined me for a two-part series on the Innovation+Talks podcast to discuss strategies that help companies create an environment where everyone is responsible for some part of the organization’s innovative efforts—even those not deemed “creatives.”

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The following excerpts from Cris during our conversation can be applied to any organization that seeks to be more innovative.

What does the word innovation mean?

Every company claims to embrace innovation, but many organizations don’t accurately define it:

“The world has latched onto the word because it's an easy thing. Here's the irony: Everyone uses the word innovation. I had a conversation this morning with an executive from one of the biggest pharmaceutical owners in the world, who said, ‘Yeah. We're still struggling with the definition of innovation across the business.’ And yet, ‘innovation’ is on straplines, it's in annual reports. It's crazy how we've genericized the word, and then we've devalued it.”

 “Innovation is an outcome, not something you do. It's not something you have. And the best way I know to explain this is: Innovation isn't a badge that we can bestow upon ourselves. It's a badge that can only be bestowed upon us by our customers. And what I mean by that is as corporates, as leaders, if we self-profess that we are innovative, we are doomed.”

 

Creating a culture of innovation must be a top-down effort

A familiar challenge companies face is how leaders set and maintain the tone for innovation for the entire organization:

“What I haven't seen tackled is a proper approach to a demonstrable shift in leadership around innovation from the generic management and leadership development and training that all managers and leaders have had for the past 20 or 30 years. A really demonstrable shift to: How do we actually lead for innovation? Because it is different, it requires different behavior and different components. We've done entrepreneurship programs, and we haven't seen any measurable return on our innovation investment. And our expectation is it's because we haven't really tackled the leadership component.”

 I couldn’t agree more with Cris’ assessment. In so many ways, we are still approaching innovation from a leadership and investment perspective as we did many years ago, despite trying to be flexible and agile and using new approaches to build products.

Innovation strategies must allow ownership throughout the organization

The organizations Cris works with occasionally refer to middle management as “permafrost” or the “frozen middle”—the part of the company where innovation stalls. But he challenges executives to rethink typical innovation strategies:

The thing that I say to all leaders is if your middle managers are the frozen middle, who's the cold North wind? Because they don't freeze themselves. They're freezing, predominantly by leaders, and in combination with the system that they're asked to work inside of. But leaders drive that system, right? The system they are being asked to work inside of freezes them, and my job, predominantly, is to help redesign that. But you can't say, ‘Let's just coach leaders, and everything else will be alright.’ The way I talk about it is that it's not about trying to make them into creative thinkers and innovators, per se, but it's about teaching them how to build an environment where those ingredients can bubble to the surface on a daily basis.”

Embrace the possibility of failure and the lessons it offers

It’s natural for companies to want to reduce risk and the chance of failure, but failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The key, according to Cris, is to “fail fast and fail cheap” and apply lessons learned to future projects:

 “The organizations that fail to embrace the notion that risks and failures are a positive thing or that they are a necessary part of innovation are the ones that don't understand the subject enough. You have to be prepared for something not to work. Otherwise, you're not testing; you're not iterating enough; you are not validating your assumptions enough. And therefore, all the tools that we have in our armory, as people that want to innovate, we're not deploying all those tools effectively enough. And everything about innovation is designed to shift you from being a cavalier risk organization to a smart risk organization.”

Make innovation a human-centered proposition

Innovation is often viewed from a technology lens, but companies must value the human condition to engage in market disruption:

Figure out how your organization can be the most human-centered organization you've ever worked in, because the more we understand people as organizations, the better our internal culture is, but also we close the delta between us as a corporate or an organization and our customer. And the closer we are to our customers—the more we know about them, the more we understand them, the more we know what they want, what they might want, the more we know what problems they have—the more we can solve, build things for them and, ultimately, innovate for them. And that's all about understanding people. And that, for me, is about being human-centered.”

This assertion couldn’t be more on-point. The “what” at the center of any disruptive innovation is understanding your customers and their pain points inside and out. Once you’ve identified that, the path to innovation becomes clearer.

Listen to Part I and Part II of my conversation with Cris Beswick on the Innovation+ Talks podcast.

Learn how Sopheon helped Welch’s improve its innovative culture with a system that simplified cross-department collaboration.

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