New at Corp Magazine: How to Inspire an Innovation Culture

Corp-MediumPrimed Associates has been featured at Corp! Magazine with our latest post, “How to Inspire an Innovation Culture.”

Companies are faced with an era of constant evolution and creative disruption. They realize that they need to implement a culture of innovation to succeed. Can companies truly change their business objectives to include innovation without first instilling certain values in management?

Innovation: From the top down
Managers are really the only ones who can bring their teams together and implement meaningful and successful changes. If managers are not using a common language of innovation to link the actions of their team members to overall organizational goals, then employees will put their attention and dedication to other projects that they are more interested in, seem easier to implement, or for which they are given encouraging consequences.


See the full post here

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Primed Associates, LLC is Presented the ExperienceChange Business Simulation for Free


Primed Associates, LLC is offering a unique opportunity to participate in the ExperienceChange change management business simulation firsthand and free-of charge in Princeton, NJ on Thursday 28 February, 2013 at Princeton Public Library.

Adapting to change is a key ingredient for the success of any enterprise. This opportunity is being provided to participants to demonstrate the value that this change management simulation can deliver an organization that is about to launch, or is working through, a large-scale change initiative.

Consider it a no obligation way to experience a best-in-class learning experience that not only delivers learning it also provides an engaging way to practice what is learned so that it may be applied back in the work environment. The offer is open to individuals and up to three attendees from a single organization or company.

For more information see our event registration and our service offerings.

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Organization Structures for Innovation – Stop reorganizing deck chairs on the Titanic

Every company has two organizational structures: The formal one is written on the charts; the other is the everyday relationship of the men and women in the organization.
Harold S. Greene

Organization. It’s a noun and a verb. It’s a label applied to any collection of individuals pursuing a perceived common purpose, regardless of how organized they may be. It’s an act designed to bring structure out of chaos and meaning out of confusion. It’s a loaded word. So much rests on the shoulders of organization. This is especially the case when innovation is the desired result of organization’s application.

As its members work together, every group will evolve a structure over time, whether by design or not. Many of the performance deficiencies of a group will often be blamed on individuals, in spite of the fact that performance more often arises from the fitness of the organization structure and its cohesion. By paying attention to the structure of an organization and the roles within it, significant advantages may be created that enable increased group efficiency and effectiveness. Perhaps the most vital lesson for an organization that wishes to become more innovation-capable is that it should create a structure that enables it to flex in response to changing environmental conditions, modifications of tasks, and shifting circumstances.

A challenge arises when we acknowledge that organization design needs to be based on the unique strategy and situation of the organization itself. In the absence of a uniform approach to organizing organizations, what considerations are universal?

We don’t know what we don’t know
If you’re not serving the customer, you’d better be serving someone who is.
Karl Albrecht

One of the most immediate concerns is that all aspects of the organization should be “fit for purpose.” Each business unit, department, group, team, and function should be aligned to the strategy of the organization and should have, if necessary a sub-strategy that directly supports and addresses the key attributes of the overarching enterprise strategy. That strategy should have as a primary target the customers the organization is designed to serve and a plan of how it will serve them. Without a clearly defined and universally understood strategy, an organization will grow haphazardly, accommodating distractions that come into view rather than focusing on specific goal completion.

Strategically focused organizations become useful backgrounds against which capability gaps and confused or absent roles may be identified in the context of the other enterprise variables necessary for innovation success. This might be knowledge management systems, business processes or even leadership attributes. If a clear strategy is in place, an organization’s leaders should ask some of the following questions to understand whether the organization should be modified or restructured:

  • What’s the nature and degree of innovation-related interaction among a group’s participants?
  • What is the geographic distribution of an innovation group?
  • Given the innovation objectives and limits, where does autonomy reside for the innovation group (internal, external, adjacent)?
  • How is coordination achieved?
  • What is the best structure for the present?
  • How can we best accommodate structure changes in the future?

The answers to these questions may determine clear next steps, which may include asking additional, deeper questions. This self-examination creates the capacity for an organization to create spaces into which sub-strategies, in support of the overarching strategy, can be embedded.

The critical component in this exploration and the eventual decision-making around organization structure is communication. Communication is critical so that the front line is aligned with the bottom line. Without it, not only might chaos ensue but the effectiveness of the structure may be hampered from the outset. Yet this is one factor that many organization leaders fail to consider, or if they do, they pay it only cursory attention—to their eventual dismay.

Moving deck chairs on the Titanic
We believe we will be able to get the airline back during the reorganization process.
Jerry Murphy

Reorganization is one trigger that’s often pulled, to the least effect. For many organization leaders, reorganization is the one thing they know that they can do and “implement” quickly, giving them both the satisfaction of taking action and the recognition that they are “doing something.” Unfortunately, the hair-trigger reorganization does little to improve an organization’s innovation performance. Instead, many organizations suffer through poorly planned transitions during which the need to “get it done” trumps “well done.”

What these leaders demonstrate are the very worst aspects of impulse control. They desire visible evidence of something (anything) being done, and they want it now. Reorganization is often the first initiative of new leaders, even when it’s not clearly needed. An organization structure should represent a resolution of any number of enduring performance dilemmas, and it should not be tampered with unnecessarily or unthinkingly.

Often in fast-growing or start-up organizations the desire to reorganize arises from the feeling of being out of control. Reorganization may be the most appropriate response in these circumstances. For a larger organization, multiple reorganizations in a short period of time are not only uncalled for, they may be detrimental in the long-term to the organization’s viability. The key is to think through the repercussions before taking action. By asking, “When we do this, what might go wrong?” it may clarify alternatives that won’t require the upheaval (and distraction) that reorganization represents.

Yes, a leader seeking innovation may use a reorganization to challenge comfort zones, but unless they also take time to create organization resilience, they may deliver carnage instead of results. Not pretty.

Impediment or enhancement
It’s about bringing the structured and unstructured information in an organization together, analyzing the information and delivering it to the right people in the organization when they need it.
Michael Schroeck

Organizations should focus on fostering implementation of plans and projects, delivering increased throughput and maintaining quality. Any organization that creates barriers, or blocks and impedes issue resolution, will kill innovation capability. The whole reason for (the verb) organization is to bring order so that information can flow and materials can be transformed into the services and goods necessary to meet customer needs in the cleanest and simplest manner. For innovation to thrive, an organization must also make accommodations for that information and for those materials to be used in unique and different ways. Rather than confining, it should promote expansive actions.

At its most elemental, an organization structure represents a set of pre-made decisions about where, when, and how to deploy resources to greatest benefit. It should create a supporting performance environment that values and recognizes contributions of its members and keeps them focused on the achievement of the strategic intent. If innovation lies at the heart of your strategy, how you decide to organize can be a firm foundation for your future success. Just remember, a given organization structure may resolve present tensions, but it might not be appropriate for all times. Keep monitoring your organization structure—and when it impedes your ability to innovate, then and only then, you should consider change.

Effective restructuring requires both a microscopic view of typical structural problems as well as an overall, topographical sense of structural options.
Lee G. Bolman & Terrence E. Deal

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Recognition as a force to foster innovation

Sometimes, the wide range of things that must be accomplished to improve an organization’s innovation culture can be overwhelming. The sheer range of available actions along with the anticipated complexity of their implementation can cause one to feel like a small woodland creature caught in the headlights of a large truck. Or, worse yet, may simply cause you to want to sit in a corner and quietly cry yourself to sleep. Sorry, was that out loud?

Nevertheless, there are some simple steps that, when repeated, can create an engine that will drive innovation practices across your enterprise.

Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got.
Peter Drucker

Recognition is the key ingredient to get things moving.

Recognition is not the ability to identify something, although that helps. What we’ll focus on here is the systematic observation and public witnessing of the right kinds of behaviors in the organization. It means “catching people doing the right thing,” and believe me, as a practitioner, it is much more fun for the giver and receiver than any performance management system focused on finding fault and making corrections. The power of recognition is that it can be simple, readily applied, and the knock-on effects can have enduring positive impacts that may carry on repeatedly.

Measure for measure
Count what is countable, measure what is measurable. What is not measurable, make measurable.
Various attributions (the more common variant meme: “If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.”)

Measurement is an important factor in the recognition of innovation-supporting actions. The challenge with measurement is in selecting the appropriate measures of performance to assess the progress toward a desired set of outcomes. If we choose metrics less than wisely, we can find that our actual performance and our desired performance slowly drift apart. The same can be said of recognition. As an acknowledgment of performance against expectations, choosing where and how recognition should be applied must also be considered just as wisely as what we measure.

When we decide to recognize performance, we come up hard against the realities of measurement in our organization. We soon discover that we are actually required to manage what we cannot measure. Innovation is an especially difficult area in which to define absolute measures. When we attempt to do so, we realize that not everything that can be measured should be managed, and that not everything that must be managed can be measured. Innovation recognition requires us to focus on movement toward desired actions rather than any hard and fast outcomes. It may also mean some missteps as we become clearer about what we need to recognize in order to move our unique culture in the appropriate direction.

One of the greatest management principles is that the things that get recognized get done again. If you’re looking to create innovation momentum, look for the behaviors you want to recognize, and explicitly tell the organization what you’re looking for, whether it’s deeper customer observations, more ideation, or faster prototyping. Be clear and be repetitive. You get more of the behavior you recognize, but you certainly will not get what you merely hope for, wish for, or beg for. Better yet, when you do see the behavior you were looking for, don’t wait a moment–make the recognition immediate, visible, and shareable.

From a performance management perspective, the closer you can tie individual (or group) performance and action to it being recognized, the stronger the tie will be in the eyes of the receivers and any observers. Any time separating their performance and its recognition, means the opportunity to foster the needed behavior diminishes rapidly.

Remember, recognition systems are much more than just bonus plans and stock options. While it is certainly possible to include both of these incentives, they can also include awards and other rewards, such as promotions, reassignment, non-monetary bonuses (e.g., vacations), or a simple thank-you. Above all, make recognition a production.

Recognition is all about seeing
Sawubona – “I see you” (traditional isiZulu greeting)

In their most recent book, Switch, Chip and Dan Heath discuss how to create change when change is hard. Fostering an innovation-capable culture is hard work. One of the earliest concepts in their work is the notion of being able to “find the bright spot.” This concept is firmly tied to the work on appreciative inquiry of David Cooperrider, a professor at Case Western Reserve University. Finding the bright spot means looking diligently for and highlighting that which is going right. It means making the success, no matter how small-seeming, a visible and desirous outcome. They are “successful efforts worth emulating.”

Recognition is about identifying and promoting the desired innovation-focus behavior. The reason to focus on recognition rather than reward systems is because recognition elicits a psychological benefit, whereas reward indicates a financial or physical benefit. Although many elements of designing, managing, and sustaining reward and recognition systems are similar, it is useful to keep this difference in mind, especially for small business owners interested in motivating staffs while keeping costs low. Additionally, recognition is great for early stage and in-process outcomes essential for behavior change, while rewards are generally end-stage and conclusive-results focused.

Being prepared to recognize is key. Some simple guidelines include:
• Create goals and action plans for innovation-supporting behavior recognition,
• Maintain fairness, clarity, and consistency in recognition, and,
• Set guidelines so all leaders acknowledge equivalent and similar contributions.

In order to develop an effective recognition program, leaders must be sure to separate it from the company’s reward program. This ensures a focus on recognizing the efforts of organization members. Effective recognition should be sincere; applied consistently and fairly; noise-free (not combined with other reporting activities); timely and frequent (especially when fostering early behavior changes so that no one’s efforts are overlooked); flexible; appropriate; and specific (specific in terms of what it recognizes and specific in terms of how it recognizes the desired behavior). See people do the right thing, early and often.

It is important that every action that supports a company’s innovation goals be recognized, whether through informal feedback or formal company-wide recognition. All members should have the same opportunity to receive recognition for their work, too. Finally, a common understanding of the behaviors or actions to be recognized should be shared. One way you can ensure this is by visibly and explicitly describing what actions will be recognized, and then reinforcing this by communicating exactly what someone did to be recognized.

How are you recognizing your bright spots and capitalizing on them?

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Small Business Big Ambition: Why innovation is no surprise in the smaller enterprise

Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.
Thomas Jefferson

In times of uncertainty we search high and low for answers to our overarching question, “How do we dig ourselves out of the deep pile of…stuff we’re in?” If there are qualifications for uncertain times, present economic indicators demonstrate that all criteria are not only met but exceeded. And our search for answers (and perhaps a shovel) continues in haste.

With very few macro-economic levers left for government officials and public policy experts to pull as they try to shift the economy into a growth pattern, our range of vision and influence narrows. We won’t find big fixes no matter how hard we look. Larger businesses have cut costs dramatically and now find themselves with large cash reserves, waiting for the economy to turn around. They patiently await orders for more products and services, before they place any orders or invest in anything themselves. Essentially, each large enterprise is waiting for the next firm to blink.

Instead of waiting for bail-outs or big business-driven economic up-ticks, we must turn to one of the greatest sources of scalable economic activity and innovation, the small to medium enterprise, for our answers. When highly functioning, these smaller enterprises know how to: make scarcity work for them (they live it every day); work closely with their customers to meet their most pressing needs; and make rapid learning the activity that gives them momentum in the marketplace.

More with less
No complaint … is more common than that of a scarcity of money.
Adam Smith

In the popular press (whatever that might be today!), it’s difficult to get a firm handle on what’s going on, or better yet, what could go on with small businesses. By their nature, small businesses are harder to classify and quantify than their big business brothers and sisters. If we consider the small enterprise to be a business of fewer than 200 people, it still leaves a bulk of the economic activity of most developed countries and nearly every developing country. These are the firms for whom bootstrapping is not something done only during times of economic distress, but all the time. They know how to stretch a dollar, or euro, or peso. But that’s not the only thing they know how to stretch.

Time, not just money, is a malleable resource, too. How you invest your time—and on what—drives a higher return on investment. For small businesses stretching time, doing more in a shorter period, gives them an economic leg up, especially when it comes to embracing and extending technology. Smaller firms have many advantages as innovation sources because they are quick to adopt new and high-risk initiatives; they facilitate structures that value ideas and originality; and they have a better capacity to reap substantial rewards from market share in small niche markets. This first-mover advantage was created by and for the small enterprise. It enabled them to get closer to customers other firms little-realized existed.

Closer to our customers
There’s a lot more business out there in small town America than I ever dreamed of.
Sam Walton

By decreasing their cycle time, small enterprises can do more for their customers than most large enterprises would commit to. The small enterprise, which usually carries with it a smaller customer base, can remain closer to their customers’ various needs—a distinct advantage over many larger businesses. This means smaller firms can pick and choose where and when to provide innovative products and services. By virtue of their size, the small business can choose to invest a larger proportion of time, energy, and expertise to discover the depth of their customers’ needs, and then pursue those needs by creating innovative solutions.

This closeness to the customer experience is also driven by the need to maximize their share of their customers’ expenditures. By remaining close to the customer, the small enterprise can seize newly arising opportunities to provide value and increase revenues simultaneously. Correspondingly, by seeking to win more business by remaining close to existing customers, the cost-of-sale is driven down, which has a positive benefit to the bottom line: a positive, deep relationship is usually a more profitable relationship. And when there a fewer customers, it’s usually easier to read which ones will be more profitable than not, and that means more effective targeting for higher risk efforts that may yield greater innovation benefits.

Faster mistakes
With any loss, you want to try to regroup and learn from mistakes.
Elena Leon

Which leads us to another reason why small enterprises are a better bet for long-term economic recovery—they are learning machines. For an employee to add to an innovative process, it may take time for them to understand the research agenda of, and challenges faced by, the firm in which they are employed; in other words, an employee may need to move up the learning curve before adding to the innovative activity of the firm. In a smaller enterprise, that learning curve may be much shorter. Existing processes and systems may be much more fluid. The amount of information to be learned and retained as working knowledge may be smaller. Better yet, the social network through which so much learning and experimentation takes place is smaller and easier to navigate, too.

For the smaller enterprise, the whole employee pool can be geared toward discovery. Each interaction, whether with an internal peer, or an external client or supplier, can be seen as an opportunity to explore possibilities. Within that exploration will be a series of hits and misses. This doesn’t mean that the inherent failures associated with trying something new within a smaller enterprise are less impactful—far from it, but it does mean that the recovery from those missteps may be easier and often shorter.

This is not to negate the impact of the larger enterprise on economic recovery, because without them there would be no recovery, as they provide a stable foundation for the broader economy. But it is to the smaller enterprise we should look for more rapid improvements. The smaller enterprise is thrifty by nature, eager to embrace its customers’ experiences, and willing to risk—through innovation—for greater reward. Unlocking the power resident within small enterprises is key to broader economic recovery. We’ll explore some of those methods in future posts.

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Innochat Transcript – 19 August – Innovation Backwards?

Sorry for the delay in getting the most recent innochat transcript posted. The challenge associated with connecting while on the road was greater than anticipated. Needless to say I didn’t expect to be looking at Uluru (aka. Ayers Rock) in the middle of Australia as I type this, but here I am.

Thanks for your patience. Attached is the transcript from the “Innovation Backwards?” chat, which was incredibly well positioned thanks to the great framing post from Caroline Di Diego and excellent moderation by Renee Hopkins.

A favorite tweet from this week’s post? This insight from Jose Briones:
The biggest issue is that in most cases picking winners from the ideation process really means picking favorites.

#innochat – transcript August 19 2010

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Innovation Herds: Me-too-ism & the dumbness of crowds

Great minds think alike, but fools seldom differ.
English Proverb

In honor of the recent football (okay, soccer) World Cup—and congratulations to South Africa for pulling off a sterling tournament (Bafana Bafana!) and the Spaniards for their first tournament victory—it seems appropriate to consider the impact of the herd on innovation practices. Not just any herd, though; this is the herd that forms when two opposing packs of 5-year-olds play the glorious game: the herd of Pee Wee Soccer.

Sound and motion with little to show for it
For those of you who don’t have children or have not seen children this age playing soccer, you have missed what certainly is an experience. The rules of soccer seem immaterial. Yes, there is a ball in play. Yes, there are referees and linespeople. Yes, there are goals at each end of the usually shortened field and two equal-numbered teams of players. The basic framework is the same, but the way the game is played is quite…different.

The pervading game objective practiced by both teams is to quite literally “crowd the ball”: where the ball goes, that’s where all players attempt to go, except for those few who become distracted by a parent or sibling on the sideline, or by the color of the sky, or by something bright and shiny, or need to re-enact football hooliganism an so on. You get the picture. What forms is a tight pack around the ball, hiding it from the spectator’s view, and which moves as a herd up and down the field. Occasionally the ball will “escape,” only to be recaptured by one of the team members who, in their inability to run and dribble the ball simultaneously, will stall until the rest of the members from both teams re-form the herd.

No one here but us sheeple
The greatest difficulty is that men do not think enough of themselves, do not consider what it is that they are sacrificing when they follow in a herd, or when they cater for their establishment.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

What of this herd? And what does it have to say about the impact of the herd mentality on innovation? A short explanation can be found here.

Given our complex worlds with their voluminous sensory inputs, we are wired to adopt a series of mental shortcuts (termed heuristics) that enable us to process only the amount of data necessary, in as short a time as possible, to meet our immediate needs. Think of heuristics as experience-based models that help in problem-solving and discovery. They drive much of our daily behavior without us even recognizing it. The reason they are effective is that they relieve us from treating every circumstance as critically important, offering relief from having to think too hard. Is it really necessary to calculate the optimum parking space at the mall, taking into consideration timing, prevailing weather, shopping patterns, etc.? No? Right—open space, here I come!

By employing heuristics, we create a series of short cuts that enable us to focus on more complex issues, more holistically and systemically, as the need arises. Heuristics, however, reinforce situational thinking and action. In recent studies conducted at the University of Leeds in Great Britain, researchers discovered that it takes a minority of just 5 percent to influence a crowd’s direction—and that the other 95 percent follow without realizing it. If we hearken back to the heady days of the dot-com book in the early 2000s, we can see this pattern in the practices of developers, who threw together “me-too” websites; institutional investors, who threw money at anything with a website; and stock market investors, who piled their money into every “sure thing” they heard about from their hairdresser, dog walker, or cab driver. And that herd behavior ended well, didn’t it?

Wise crowds and the benefit of discomfort
The dissenter is every human being at those moments of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself.
Archibald MacLeish

Unless we take steps to separate ourselves from the crowd and seek to break our ingrained patterns of thinking, we will continue to be drawn to the herd. In James Surowiecki’s bestseller The Wisdom of the Crowds, he noted that there are highly functional types of groups that possess not a herd mentality, but an inherent wisdom. From his perspective, if four basic conditions are met, a crowd’s “collective intelligence” will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts. Surowiecki says that wisdom will prevail even if members of the crowd don’t know all the facts or choose, individually, to act irrationally. “Wise crowds” need 1) diversity of opinion; 2) independence of members from one another; 3) decentralization; and 4) a good method for aggregating opinions. In short, effective groups need guidelines (like heuristics), but ones that are focused on differentiation and not similarity. “Me-too” has to be retired so that “What if” might prevail.

Unfortunately, when wisdom meets the herd, the prevailing outcome is the dumbness of the crowds.

To reach beyond the herd, organizations must embrace difference and the discomfort that comes from not adopting the first, or easiest, answer to a presenting challenge. Clay Shirky, a professor in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, described in his book Here Comes Everybody the benefits of groups breaking out of the herd mentality and moving toward “collaborative production”:

Collaborative production, where people have to coordinate with one another to get anything done, is considerably harder than simple sharing, but the results can be more profound. New tools allow large groups to collaborate, by taking advantage of nonfinancial motivations and by allowing for wildly differing levels of coordination.
Shirky, pp. 109

Over time, even the Pee Wee Soccer team learns how to play the game. Each player discovers his or her own strengths, and a good coach will recognize those differences and create something greater than a mob out of them. Their efforts become grounded in collaborative production. In our organizations, innovation processes that support our thinking and don’t provide ready answers give us the opportunity to develop solutions that reach beyond the herd. We can choose to stretch past the simple and explore the complex so that our solutions are new and not “me-too.”

We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people. Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.
General George S. Patton

Being in a herd is actually a matter of choice, one that must be made consciously in order for a range of alternatives to be revealed. In a competitive marketplace, would you rather be in the herd, where the view rarely changes, or out front? I thought so.

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Innochat Transcript – 22 July – Tribal Leadership and Innovation

Due to the inability to gain access to my Ning account, I’m posting the transcript temporarily here. It will be moved to a new location shortly (as will the other transcripts.)

Thanks to Andrew Townley for moderating this great topic – truly sad to have missed out due to client commitments.

#innochat – transcript July 22 2010

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Presenting at the ODN – Long Island Annual Conference April 8

The ODN Long Island Chapter is hosting its annual conference on April 8, 2010 at the Marriott Residence Inn, Plainview, NY . The focus is on building stronger, better organizations so that they can not only succeed but thrive as we work our way out of the Great Recession. More details here.

My topic is: Manufacturing Magic – The Hard Work of Creating an Innovation Culture

In the phrase, “we need to be more innovative”, lies a universe of misspent time, energy and political capital. As the popular media love affair with the notion of innovation continues, and leaders begin looking for answers to their businesses’ economic health beyond those actions necessary to survive the Great Recession, many organization development professionals are being tasked with making their organizations “more innovative.” Unfortunately, it seems that the concept of innovation has been coupled with that of creativity and unless we deliver something bright, shiny and magical, we’re going to disappoint.

Creating an innovation culture is not easy. As with change initiatives that have come (and gone) before, it is fraught with miss-comprehensions, false starts and dead ends. With the right effort applied to the appropriate leverage points in your organization, you might just be able to deliver the results you and your leadership seek.

This presentation, backed by current research in innovation best practices, will provide a rapid overview of the different entry points to begin creating an innovation culture. It will highlight key concerns, critical decisions, potential problems and the planning necessary to begin the process of making an innovation culture that fits your organization’s needs and wants. It will also address the business value to be obtained in terms that are clear and meaningful. While creating an innovation culture may be costly and hard work, the key question to ask is – what is the business impact and cost of lack of innovation?

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5 Innovation Traps in Organization Culture

“Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes.”
– Oscar Wilde

Organizations can be such powerful forces for change. Sometimes they can get in their own way and the value they could bring to life becomes trapped. A little experience of the ways in which an organization’s culture can trap innovation might help others avoid these same mistakes. Do you see yourself or your organization in these five traps?

1. Preparation is everything – Actually, it’s become the only thing. We’re not ready, yet. Or Ever.

The very notion of choosing which innovation to pursue cripples many an organization. One of the primary reasons for this behavior is the chronic lack of clear decision-making criteria against which any of the usually many options may be assessed. And without clear criteria, there is never enough data. Because without a decision making framework all data is open for consideration.

Brache and Bodley-Scott, in their book Implementation make it abundantly clear that the criteria for selecting any portfolio (be it strategic projects or innovation prospects) must be tied directly into your organization’s strategy. These criteria should express how the alternatives might, for example:

  • implement the organization strategy,
  • increase sales,
  • establish or widen a competitive advantage,
  • reduce costs, and,
  • increase customer satisfaction and lifetime value.

In Good to Great, Collins took this concept even further. His Hedghog Concept said that it is not enough to simply select the priority of investment alternatives you actually need to choose between life and death. You must choose which innovation efforts get funding and live and which do not, and therefore die so as to not draw away from your best efforts.

Getting out of the trap of analysis paralysis means keeping clear parameters for performance and success top of mind. This results in clear objectives driving your decisions. It also is most profoundly demonstrated in the courage of a company like Kimberly Clark to completely transform it’s business from a paper product company to a consumer products company. You don’t make those kinds of choices without being very clear of your intent. Focus first.

2. When we looked there, the cupboard was bare – Not enough stuff – people, resources, systems, data

In the current economic climate everyone is doing more with less. Fewer human resources, fewer capital reserves, fewer supplies. Resource scarcity has become the operational order of the day. This pervasive sense of limitation influences the choices we make about when and how to innovate.

Where this philosophy becomes a trap is when it is synonymous with keeping the lights on. Keeping the lights on as a mindset is the business equivalent of survival mode. No investments are being made. Current expenses are being severely limited. The concept of adding new investments for the purposes of innovation are not only avoided at all costs, they might be completely foreign because resource hoarding is so ingrained.

Cost-cutting procedures are of paramount virtue in this context. The person who saves the penny is a hero. But this organization trap means that we may be being penny wise and dollar (or pound, or euro, or renminbi) foolish.

How do you address this trap? One of my earlier posts focused on the counterpoint to resource scarcity – making do with what you have. Innovation as practiced in many organization does exactly that; the subversive nature of innovation means that it can survive even in the most hostile environments. An organization such as 3M used time as the primary investment of it’s employees in order to break this cycle. They instructed employees to use a percentage of every work week and devote it to exploring new ideas. 3M’s innovation success subsequently relied on long-term, individually directed exploratory research projects rather than large, well-funded, corporate sponsored efforts.

The key is to make do with what you have.

“The greatest thing a man can do in this world is to make the most possible out of the stuff that has been given him. This is success, and there is no other.”

– Orison Swett Marden

3. Sound and fury signifying nothing – we act without thinking and we talk about it (a lot)

“Have you heard about Twitter? What about The Facebook? Or Digg? Or Yelp? Well we are a little like all of them, but with a viral marketing element based on Mafia Wars.”

Stop it. Now.

An idea magically appearing in someone’s head does not mean it must be given voice. Innovation in this organization is trapped like so much debris in a Bowerbird’s nest. It’s bright and shiny and we’re going to collect as much of as we possibly can. Because surely when we collect enough of it we’ll attract more eyeballs and something is bound to happen, right? Please…

To paraphrase a famous Texan this organization is “all hat – no cattle”. They can talk a good game about innovation and probably have a mountain of “innovation” initiatives underway but little to show for it. They lack a cohesive strategy that might link all their efforts. In the absence of critical thinking about what innovation means they are intent on latching on to the next big thing, because if they pick the right one they think they will win. Don’t follow fads.

“Life is a tale told by an idiot — full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
– William Shakespeare (Macbeth: Act 5, scenes 1–11)

4. Perfect is the enemy of good – not ready to release (okay, never ready to release)

This innovation trap is one studiously avoided by most plastic surgeons. It was this field that coined the phrase that, “the enemy of good is perfect.” In this one line they landed the fact that there really can be too much of a good thing. (No link provided for the sake of everyone’s sanity but if you really must know, feel free to Google “plastic surgery disasters” for a sample of the pursuit of perfection) [shudder].

Organizations struggling in this innovation trap are intently focused on refining and polishing their innovations before taking them to market. The internal decision making and approval processes lock the innovation into a perpetual state of design and development, in endless pursuit of a hope for perfection. And where are the customers in this process? Nowhere to be seen. Giving rise to explanation like, “We can’t show them this? If we do, they might not like it and might go to our competitor.”

What’s that sound?

That’s the sound of your customer base being leeched away due to inattention and inactivity. Just because you’re busy innovating doesn’t mean they’ll stick around. This one innovation trap has actually given rise to equally important innovation practices, open innovation and rapid prototyping. Both of which offer ways out of over-reaching for perfection innovation.

“A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.”
– James Joyce

5. It’s business as usual day after day – (Business as usual just grindin’ away) predictability means dinner at home each night

The final trap into which the desire for innovation may fall is that represented by the economics of scarcity. Many organizations sacrifice their need to innovate to their desire to perpetuate BAU (Business As Usual). Which is not to say that a philosophy that reinforces business continuity is a bad thing. Far from it.

That said, a workman-like focus on BAU may actually be a self-deception.

Business as usual is safe. It is a known quantity. It doesn’t demand the unthinkable, the unknowable, or the unbelievable. It means we can get our job done, meet our objectives, and deliver anticipated value. It means we can work nine to five, punch the clock, pay the bills, and make it: home for dinner / to the game / for drinks with friends. It demands little. And people rise to the limited expectations of BAU because to think of being any other way is…just…too…hard.

“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
– William Shedd

And this is perhaps the most appalling trap into which innovation can fall. This represents an organizational failure to embrace the excitement and passion of the creative pursuit of the new, the wild, the different. This trap is created within an organization that has lost its way. The vision has long since dried up. The mission is already accomplished. The path this organization treads is the path of the zombie – a single-minded focus on immediate, simple survival needs and little else.

Unfortunately, often the only hope for the trap in which this organization finds itself is brutal. It either requires new leadership or a stake to the heart. But what if all it requires is something as simple as showing up and making an effort. To not do so would be criminal.

“A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage. Every day sends to their graves obscure men whose timidity prevented them from making a first effort.”
– Sydney Smith

Avoiding the five traps in organization culture means: finding focus; making do; avoiding fads; accepting the acceptable; and having a go. Simple admonishments for powerful gains.

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