The adoption of a culture of innovation is one of those topics that has generated considerable interest over the past year. Every business wants it, and every executive is talking about it.

But despite all of this discussion and mindshare, it seems that everyone has a different idea what this concept means.

We caught up with Cris Beswick, strategic advisor on innovation, co-author of “Building a Culture of Innovation,” and speaker at Intrapreneurship Conference Stockholm to find the true meaning of a culture of innovation and how businesses can attain this level of enlightenment to win in today’s ever-evolving world.


 

Let’s start with this fundamental question: what ís a culture of innovation?

This question comes up quite a lot. When people talk about a culture of anything, they generally believe that everyone in the organization must take part in driving the ultimate vision. However, the reality is much different.

Take, for example, our individual countries. Every nation has its own distinct set of values and traditions that define its culture. By no means does the entire population feel the same way; however, the national identity does take into account the behavior and beliefs of the vast majority to define the experience of visiting or living in that particular country.

The culture of innovation is exactly the same in an organization. It’s about getting as many people as possible to rally around the habits, mindsets, and skills needed to drive innovation.

And if a high proportion of the workforce adopts this core value, the overall workplace environment begins to transition itself.

We are never going to convince 100% of the workforce to innovate, nor would we want that to happen. Maintaining a diverse level of acceptance helps an organization ask tough questions to help ensure that business innovation is heading in the right direction.

What are some of the biggest obstacles to achieving a culture that highly values innovation?

Businesses are often eager to label themselves as innovative. But in reality, you cannot simply proclaim this quality. Putting a crown on my head doesn’t make me the King of England, and the same can be said when self-professing innovativeness. Only your customers can crown you as innovation royalty.

One specific challenge of innovation is its relative newness, especially for businesses that need and want to embrace it. When we talk about building a culture of innovation, there’s still a huge gap in understanding what that means.

This is very different from fostering a culture of compliance or a culture of customer experience – those strategic objectives are very well-known. But when it comes to innovation, very few people know how to energize and leverage it, let alone define it.

What separates businesses that understand the meaning of innovation from those who do not?

At its core, innovation happens only when enough people have the desire to solve problems and change things. They talk about innovation as an outcome, rather than just an amalgamation of behaviors, habits, and processes. For example, I am impressed with how the innovation journey has come full circle for many companies.

As a former designer, I was measured in my ability to apply the principles of design thinking, entrepreneurship, and customer centricity in my work. Now, I am finding that nearly every business area is using these tools to purposefully deliver solutions and do things differently and better.

From this perspective, these organizations are appreciating the simplicity of innovation. They quickly realize that innovation is the sum of everything the organization has done for years – great leadership; dedicated time, space, and resources; openness to try new things; and genuine, granular insight from customer intelligence – and a renewed desire to encourage inquisitiveness and problem-solving.

With a little effort, every leader and employee can unearth emerging problems without assumptions, bias, and gut-driven guesswork.

The ultimate vision is the delivery of brilliant solutions that resolve profound and complex challenges. But more important, the outcome of such creative leadership will hopefully disrupt competitors and impress customers. Impress them enough to “wow” them so they crown you as innovation royalty.

Is a culture of innovation best adopted with a top-down or bottom-up leadership approach?

The overall leadership may be top-down, and innovation delivery may be bottom-up. However, at the risk of being a renegade, I prefer to say neither.

I have noticed that it is best to first establish a culture of innovation at the middle-management layer and then radiate it out across all levels above and below. It is here where innovation either flies or dies.

Whenever I show how innovation can help them do their jobs better, middle managers not only embrace it in their work, but also evangelize its value to their team, peers, and leadership.

Middle managers have a unique understanding of the corporate strategy, day-to-day operations, and the relationship between the two sides of the business. Furthermore, they are the ones who are most under pressure to deliver outcomes that positively impact the customer and the balance sheet.

Is nurturing a culture of innovation about learning new skills or unlearning old habits?

It’s both. However, it’s never 50/50.

It’s 75% stopping activities that do not work and sap creative thinking, and 25% unleashing current habits and knowledge to drive change.

When it comes to innovation, there really isn’t that much to learn. I firmly believe that the majority of organizations have the talent and creative potential they need. The work that I do is about using innovation as a conduit to let the workforce flourish by unlocking the shackles of counterproductive thinking – rather than introducing and implementing new tools and methodologies.

The biggest proportion of unlearning is done within senior teams. All too often, the organizational behaviors that are unconsciously embedded in their day-to-day work are possibly the most significant barriers to innovation.

Too much hierarchy, too much top-down command and control, not enough flexibility in the middle of the organization, and limited collaboration across departments – all of these traditional ways of running a business can be incredibly detrimental.

Some companies have come to realize that their traditional ways of doing business block innovation. To make sure these mistakes do not follow the future generation of leaders, CEOs and CHROs have redesigned their leadership development programs around the core behaviors of innovation.

They recognize that their high-potential talent cannot be developed as future leaders by using the same learning path as their predecessors’. I’ve even encountered firms that are even cultivating their second- and third-generation leaders now to prepare them for the boardroom within the next 10–15 years.


Join Cris Beswick’s whiteboard session “Building a Culture of Innovation” during Intrapreneurship Conference Stockholm to understand best practices and discuss challenges with peers.