Creating a culture where innovation thrives

Creating a culture where innovation thrives

By Dr. Amanda Imber, Inventium founder

Does your organisation have a culture in which innovation thrives? Are people challenging the status quo and being encouraged by leaders to take risks in pursuit of innovation? Or is the opposite true – managers don’t take time to listen to new ideas, and suggestions to make improvements are met with the comment, “But we tried that last year and it didn’t work”?

Building a culture of innovation is hard work. Many leaders who have been given this directive immediately think about the Googles and Apples of the world. Images of beanbags and table-tennis tables fill their minds, as do ‘blue sky’ workshops in far-off country retreats.

However, what we know from research is that all of this is completely ineffective in creating a culture of innovation. As is often the case, the voice of popular culture and fad-ridden management books wins out over the voice of scientific research. Jargonfilled, densely written journal papers are harder to access than the pop-psych books filling the shelves.

The scientific research into how to create a culture where innovation thrives is both plentiful and precise. For example, Samuel Hunter from the University of Oklahoma, along with his colleagues Katrina Bedell and Michael Mumford, ran a large-scale meta-analysis to understand which variables had the biggest impact on innovation culture. They reviewed 42 journal papers, which, in total, had drawn data from 14,490 participants.

The research revealed 14 key drivers into innovation culture and ranked the drivers from most impactful through to least impactful. Let’s delve further into three of the top-ranking variables.

1. Find the right level of challenge
Hunter’s meta-analysis found that employees feeling a strong sense of challenge in their work is one of the strongest drivers of a culture of innovation. They defined ‘challenge’ as the “perception that jobs and/or tasks are challenging, complex and interesting – yet at the same time, not overly taxing or unduly overwhelming”.

It is important that you don’t simply think about how to give people the biggest possible challenge. Instead, you should ensure that the level of challenge you set is one that is achievable. On the flip side, setting tasks that people are able to complete with their eyes closed will not breed a culture where innovation thrives.

In a 2014 review of several meta-analyses, Silvia da Costa and several colleagues from the University of the Basque Country examined the difference in creativity for those in challenging versus non-challenging roles. The researchers found that if people are in a role that challenges them, 67% will demonstrate above-average creativity and innovation in their performance. In contrast, only 33% of people in ‘easy’ jobs show aboveaverage innovation.

At GE, Jeff Immelt famously introduced imagination breakthroughs [IBs], defined as an innovation that will contribute $100m worth of incremental growth, to his senior leadership team. Each member of the team was responsible for generating three IBs every year. The challenge is big, but the resources made available to leaders make it a challenge they can meet.

Matching the level of challenge to an individual’s skill level is key to finding the optimal level. As a manager, take time to thoughtfully consider how you allocate tasks and projects to people. Ensure that you are matching these elements so that people feel a significant sense of challenge.

2. Encourage risk-taking
The notion of failure being unacceptable is one that I have found resonates with many organisations. Failure is generally thought of as a dirty word, something that gets swept under the carpet when it does rear its ugly head. But being able to acknowledge and learn from failure is a huge part of building a culture where risk-taking is tolerated and innovation can thrive. Leaders play an important role in signalling that risk-taking is encouraged and that failure is tolerated.

The Tata Group is an example of a company that has embraced risk-taking. Like many organisations serious about innovation, they have an annual innovation awards program, known as InnoVista. While that’s not particularly ground-breaking, what is innovative is the awards categories. InnoVista pays tribute to the group’s most outstanding and promising innovations, but there is also a category called Dare to Try, which was launched back in 2009. This category is reserved for ideas that were attempted but that, according to the Tata Group, “have fallen short of achieving optimum results”.

As a leader, think about initiatives and actions you can put in place to illustrate that your company doesn’t just pay lip service to risk-taking, but actually does it. You might even want to consider having a company award for innovations that were not successes, but where the learnings were really rich. Finally, consider reframing risk-taking in a positive way, such as talking about how risks provide people with the opportunity to learn.

3. Support from the top
Ensuring that senior leaders in your organisation understand and communicate the importance of innovation is critical. In fact, Hunter’s meta-analysis showed that people feeling that the top level of management truly supported innovation efforts was one of the strongest predictors of an innovation culture.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for senior leaders to play it safe when confronted with the choice of whether to support innovation. I recently worked with the Australian leadership team of a global technology company. While innovation was a strategic priority for the company globally, the Australian CEO was frightened of innovation because it meant taking a risk. And this fear permeated the business, which meant that employees were too nervous to do anything differently because that was the message they were getting from the top.

If you are a senior leader, make sure that you see your role as actually innovating, as opposed to just delegating it to other people. Research has shown this is a key differentiator between leaders in innovative versus non-innovative companies. Further, as a leader, think about behaviours you can engage in that symbolise your commitment to and support of innovation.
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