COMMENTARY

6 keys to building a culture of innovation

Well-defined challenges can seamlessly flow across organizational, technical and functional boundaries that lie within every organization

Dwayne Spradlin is chief executive officer of InnoCentive, a company that helps organizations generate new ideas through online communities.

The Obama administration has shown a lot of interest in taking advantage of technology to come up with innovative solutions to longstanding and newly emerging problems. But as many people have now determined, technology is just a tool. It takes much more than tools to develop a culture of innovation, especially in the government.

To understand this better, let’s start with a simple definition of culture. It's an expression of a group of people, their past, current beliefs, ideas and behaviors. An innovation culture can then be defined as an expression of people, their past experiences, present beliefs, ideas and behaviors in which they make innovation happen and continue to do so over time.

Building a culture of innovation is difficult in the government. Unlike business, which applies a corporate culture to drive innovation with monetary incentives, the government rewards predictability and conservative behavior.

At InnoCentive, we believe that innovation is synonymous with fresh ideas and diverse thinking. Those elements are best found in a broad and varied audience. Therefore, articulating and sharing important organizational problems as well-defined challenges are crucial. Based on that philosophy, we established six critical elements that can foster the emergence of an innovative culture.

  • Coordinate top-down and grass-roots efforts. Neither approach can succeed by itself. Leaders are in a position to lead by example, and their attitudes and beliefs about innovation will be reflected in the group’s outcome. Similarly, a group that does not feel empowered to solve problems in the organization might also be hindered in the overall success of creating an innovative culture.
  • Define the challenge clearly. Organizations that are good at innovation contests or challenges can reap numerous benefits. Yet many organizations struggle with this component. In this case, technology works to spread the word about a challenge, but we still rely on people to define the challenge in a way that a broad and diverse audience can participate in and respond to. Many believe that a well-defined problem can be an even more powerful tool for organizational development than the answers themselves.
  • Remove the organizational silos. Our data shows that if an organization removes its silos, at least 75 percent of solutions to problems will be proposed by someone you wouldn't have expected. Well-defined challenges can seamlessly flow across the organizational, technical and functional boundaries in every organization.
  • Recognize successful innovators among your employees. Publicly recognizing the contributions made by your employees who engage in innovative work can go a long way. That not only helps people strive to be recognized but also can set a tone that reinforces the importance of innovation by management. Rewards do not need to be monetary — a pat on the back and some public recognition can also go a long way.
  • Don’t treat innovation as an event. Innovation should be deeply ingrained in how the organization operates day in and day out, not highlighted in one-off contests.
  • Give people the free, unstructured time to be innovative. This is regarded as one of the keys to the innovation factory that is Google. Your employees will find the opportunity to find internal projects that interest them — and that’s where they’re most likely to be truly innovative.
Although those elements are only a few critical points to consider when striving to become a more innovative culture, the use of technology combined with the right culture and people is what allows a true culture of innovation to emerge.

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Reader comments

Sun, Sep 19, 2010 Philip Atkinson Edinburgh, Scotland

I think you are right in in your assessment and your six criteria to build a culture of innovation – but I have some further points I would like to develop. My job is to help organisations develop innovative cultures. Most organisations need a business strategy that manages risk - which is neither too risk averse nor too uncontrolled. In fact, I think most organisations build processes to mitigate against risk by over managing people and with that drive out innovative thinking. Most organisations fail to encourage folk to take thoughtful risks and end up employing the same types of managers who tend to be more task orientated rather than transforming to the next level of performance. We need to transform business - we don't need more day to day transactional management. Given the choice senior management teams recruit and promote a ‘safe pair of hands’. Sometimes managers are tempted to go for the ‘assertive intuitive’ but often fear the consequences and the culture remains the same. Doing more of the same old stuff’ will not get you to a new levels of functioning. Doing the same stuff and expecting a huge improvement in performance is not the answer. It does not work. The level of functioning that got the organisation to where it is today will not get it to where it needs to be tomorrow. Senior managers have to have faith and trust in some of the mavericks. We don’t appoint these people because we know we will be taking a risk and too often management teams worry about their ego’s rather than the obvious risk managed option. Often transformational leaders are a headache to manage because they have so many ideas and pursue many routes than traditional management. That’s another consequence of breaking down the silos that the article outlines. I believe the answer is in building a learning culture but this must start with imbedding learning processes and a management leadership style that supports innovation and develop new motivational strategies. It can be achieved and sustained. Momentum for positive change can be achieved but it lies in culture change and managing any resistance.

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