Ask the question, “What does a culture of innovation look and sound like?” and you’re likely to get a variety of answers. That’s not a bad thing. It’s probably slightly different – and articulated differently – in each organization.
If the person being asked can articulate a definition, that’s major success and a foundation to build from. You may just as likely get blank stares, and responses like, “I know it when I see it, but can’t put my finger on it” or “It’s when people are coming up with new ideas all the time.”
Of course, these are not measurable or meaningful … or manageable, for that matter. And many leaders see benefit in building a culture of innovation. So how can such a culture be defined, as an objective, such that it can be nurtured and cultivated?
Culture is an aggregate built from human dynamics, processes, and structures. The endlessly fascinating part is the people dimension. Do the people in the organization have the ability and willingness to be innovative?
Here are some interesting questions, organized under the construct of a competency (knowledge, attitudes, behaviors, beliefs), to help start thinking about ways to define a culture of innovation:
Knowledge: Do people know how to think creatively to solve problems or capture opportunities, individually and collectively? Do they understand the process to follow to translate a promising idea into tangible value, and how to divide roles/responsibilities to do so?
Attitudes: Is there a predisposition of collaboration and benevolence, or does everyone want to be the hero visionary or problem solver? Are opinions, diversity in thinking, and perspectives encouraged, tolerated, or discouraged?
Behavior: Are ideas shot down by the classic “devil’s advocate” argument (finding reasons why something won’t work instead of reasons it could or alternate approaches) or are they embraced as part of the process of progress?
Beliefs: Is there a widely held belief in community, the values/vision of the organization, and working to win together? Do employees believe that they are respected, valued and empowered to make improvements?
Taking a slightly different tack toward understanding the human dynamics of innovation, we can identify unwritten or formal rules or norms. These may be established and perpetuated by management’s handling of situations and by individual employees at all levels.
These rules might include, “Complaining is OK, but you must have an idea for resolution (be part of the solution, not part of the problem).” Or, “It’s acceptable and expected that individuals will take risks, within reason, but if their actions pan out negatively, they must learn from the experience and transfer their learning to others.” Or, “Individuals are expected as a condition of employment not just to perform their duties, but also to make improvements on a daily basis.”
What are the innovation competencies or norms that are thriving in your organization? Which ones are lacking? Taking the time to study and map the human dimension can lead to identifying opportunities to ignite change and develop a culture of innovation.