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Culture Squashes Innovation

Your company needs a road map for change—not a hyped mission statement.

Source: Pixabay

The role of innovation and transformation tops the list of industry buzzwords today. The fear of disruption and obsolescence is driving a host of strategies and tactics that are intended to "reinvent" something that is new and competitive. From manufacturing to pharma, conference rooms and video screens are full of concerned faces who are struggling to find the way forward.

Leadership is both part of the solution and the problem. Today, leaders grab on to trends and market dynamics as an attempt to keep up and stay relevant. But the real problem—across companies and sectors—is that much is lost in translation. The aspects of leadership are often replaced by the empty banter that includes words such as "innovate", "disrupt" and "transform". In the final analysis, leaders often strive to build a round square—something easily articulated but functionally impossible. They talk the innovation talk, but the reality of change is something that fails to gain traction, at even the earliest stages. And while leadership is sometimes the focal point for driving innovation, the diffusion of this mandate is a more practical and important reality to this desired change. In other words, top down doesn't work.

An interesting article in Harvard Business Review looked at obstacles to innovation in large corporations. Based on a survey of 270 corporate leaders, culture was found to be the single biggest obstacle to innovation—not strategy, vision, tactics or the elusive search for the big idea, but culture!

The culture at large companies is typically built on a foundation of operational excellence and predictable growth. Change-makers trying to conduct experiments are rarely greeted with open arms — especially when they’re working on an idea that may cannibalize stable businesses or upend today’s distribution model.

Corporate culture is the enemy. "Good enough" is suppressing "great". And professional complacency is the friction that ends up grinding progress to a halt. What emerges is a consensus that is less a notion of innovation but more an expression of mediocrity. The innovations that lie on the fringes are neutered or left whimpering with an agonal voice. What's left is much less a powerful idea but more another check in the box for a corporate worksheet.

And beyond culture, the failure of the CEO to support innovation didn't rank high of the list of drivers. In fact, it was last. But the failure to support change might be largely just a function of that complacency (quarter to quarter profit and other standard KPIs) that drags the c-suite into the pabulum of this very corporate culture.

Interestingly, survey respondents said that their least significant was the “lack of CEO support”; just 10% of survey respondents said that it was constraining innovation at their company. The CEO, it turns out, doesn’t wield a sledgehammer that can demolish any obstacle that blocks a team of smart employees with a good idea.

In today's customer-centric world, we often don't treat employees as functional collaborators, but more as facilitators of a c-suite mission statement of market catch phrases. Today, leaders need to lead by example. And these examples spring from a collaborative environment where failure and success are embraced as part of the innovation process. While a central driver of innovation can be culture, culture is catalyzed from above. Innovational leadership is less about a practical knowledge of a market sector, but more about the installation of "psychic permission" for business employees to think and act in new and exciting ways that break from the yoke of the status quo.

It starts with 4 rules that help establish the "collaboratory" of innovation that allows the empowerment of purpose. And along that path, the spark of innovation can ignite real change.

  • Expand the focus from profit to include purpose.
  • Dismantle hierarchies and craft networks.
  • Limit control and drive empowerment.
  • Stop planning and begin experimenting.

The writer and futurist, Alvin Toffler captured this idea perfectly and paraphrased from his 1970 book Future Shock.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

It seems much of the corporate world is stuck on the first part of that quote: learning. It might be time to unthink and unlearn a bit and embrace those ideas that are less a derivation of yesterday but come from that other place we call the future.