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Say “Yes” to Innovation: A Six-Part Series on Cultivating an Atmosphere for Change

In part 2 of our series on cultivating innovation, we look at how to create a workplace culture that promotes innovation.

Published On: May 2017

Part 2: What Does a Culture of Innovation Look Like?

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about what innovation is and established that women are particularly good at creating cultures that support transformational, disruptive innovation. Here, we’ll get on the same page about the nature of an innovative culture.

There are a couple of really bright guys (that’s right – women haven’t yet cornered the market on smarts, but we’re getting close), Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn, who are among my gurus on the topic of organizational culture. Both are professors at the University of Michigan. One of the reasons I admire their work is that they combine solid academic research with practical business application.

They define culture as “an enduring set of values, beliefs and assumptions that characterize organizations and their members.”[i]  Stated more simply, culture is the way work gets done in an organization. And if the work you want to get done is innovation, you need a culture that supports it.

But what does a culture that supports innovation look like? Let’s first turn to what Cameron and Quinn have developed: a research-based model called the “Competing Values Framework” or CVF, which is a powerful tool for assessing and depicting organizational culture.

Here’s what Cameron and Quinn discovered: every organization struggles with the question, “What does ‘good’ look like?” In other words, “How will we know what makes this organization truly effective?”  (By the way, if you want to convince a culture-skeptic in your organization to pay attention, the term organization effectiveness is more likely to resonate with them than the term culture. Once you’ve hooked them, you can help them see culture isn’t just about the “soft” stuff.) CVF (Figure 1) is the framework Cameron and Quinn came up with to answer this question.

Figure 1: The Competing Values Framework

With this framework to guide them, leaders explore specific questions about the right culture to support the future direction of the organization:

  • How much flexibility should we give people to get their jobs done? And how do we establish the right balance of control to allow this flexibility without creating chaos?
  • What’s the right amount of focus on internal cohesiveness that won’t result in taking our eye off the ball of our external marketplace?

Leaders consider a series of choices relating to flexibility vs. control and internal vs. external focus, plot their choices on the graph, and the result is a picture of their desired culture.

Cameron and Quinn defined four cultures, one in each quadrant of the graph. I’ve labeled the cultures Collaborative, Innovative, Results-driven, and Structured.

Typically, every organization has elements of all four cultures with emphasis on one or, sometimes, two cultures. No big surprise, to nurture innovation the Innovative culture must be prominent. But innovation also requires a heavy dose of Collaborative culture and is balanced – in order to avoid chaos – by Results-driven and Structured cultures.

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ve applied my imagination and the CVF to create a graphic representation (Figure 2) of an ideal innovation-supportive culture. It’s based on first-hand experience and research into the thinking of others on the topic.

Figure 2: An Ideal Innovation Culture Profile

Cultures of innovation are:

  • Predominantly Innovative: Original ideas are generated and executed. Creativity and risk-taking are fostered. Failure is expected as a natural part of the development process. The focus is to ideate and develop products that generate new markets, new customers, new opportunities. Growth strategy includes acquisition.[ii] Speed and agility are tempered with process and risk assessment. Intrapreneurial effort, experimentation, and achievements are recognized and rewarded. The innovation process is streamlined to consistently identify the best projects and move them forward efficiently.
  • Strongly Collaborative: There is teamwork among business and functional units, across geographies, and with external partners.[iii] Communication is open and transparent. Employees are involved and committed. Mutual trust is high. People are truly empowered with responsibility and the authority to get things done.
  • Explicitly Results-driven: Innovation is clearly communicated as an expected result. Shifting marketplace and customer demand sets the pace. Goal achievement is recognized and rewarded. Metrics are used to fuel innovation.
  • Moderately Structured: There is a sustainable balance between operational excellence and innovation.iii Operational excellence, with its focus on quality and efficiency, is required to drive financial performance. There is also a balance between out-of-the-box thinking and sound management principles. Managers are “ambidextrous,” able to function in both the operational world and the innovation world. The streamlined innovation process is coordinated to ensure it stays lean, organized, and smooth-running.

A cautionary note about the Results-driven and Structured cultures: while an innovation culture requires these for balance, they can be viewed as the “bad guys.” Too much emphasis on these will be a real drag on innovation. We’ve observed this especially in large companies where the key success factor is “making the numbers” and/or there is a big bureaucracy with lots of red tape. Innovation and innovative engineers have a hard time thriving in this kind of environment.

Creating an innovation culture, or any other culture for that matter, is rarely the result of a grassroots effort. Usually, the leaders of an organization are the ones who create the culture. They set the tone by demonstrating, and being the role models for, the right characteristics. The next blog in this series will look at these characteristics, drilling down to the specific behaviors that matter most for an innovative culture – for both leaders and their teams.

About the Author

Patricia SchaefferPatricia Schaeffer is co-founder of Talent Strategy Partners, a leadership development consulting firm that collaborates with executives to identify and develop a pipeline of emerging leaders ready to fill mission-critical positions. You can reach Pat at (215) 275-7430 or pschaeffer@tsphr.com.

[i] Cameron, Kim S. and Quinn, Robert E. Diagnosing and Changing Organization Culture Based on the Competing Values Framework. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, a John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Imprint, 2006.

[ii] McGrath, Rita Gunther. How the Growth Outliers Do It. Harvard Business Review, January-February 2012.

[iii] Shelton, Rob. These Five Behaviors Can Create an Innovation Culture. strategy+business (S+B Blogs), June 30, 2016.

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