Business Success: Tips from the Field

All my successes have been built on my failures.—Benjamin Disraeli, British statesman and literary figure

Cherry Woodburn, a business innovation consultant, attributes her passion for innovation to her first manager who encouraged her to try new ideas without fear of recrimination. “If an idea didn’t work,” Woodburn states. “We would analyze the process and learn from the experience.” Here she shares advice on creating a culture of innovation.

Most companies fail to encourage innovation. Large companies in particular tend to be risk adverse and have a mind-set geared toward exploiting ways to control their processes through standardization. Process improvement is beneficial. But a company’s emphasis on reducing variation in its present systems can result in a lack of innovation over the long term. It is a paradox. While companies are increasing the quality of their product, they may be decreasing their ability to innovate.

Businesses need to cultivate innovation in order to compete in today’s fast-paced, innovation-driven economy. Since innovation is now recognized as necessary to keep a business viable and competitive, why doesn’t a culture of innovation spring up organically? Why does it need to be fostered? What keeps employees from naturally bubbling with creativity?

Obviously there are many variables, one of which is a cultural belief that there is one right answer. The natural outcome of this simplistic thinking is a reduction in the dialogue, thereby blocking the exploration of various alternate viewpoints and ideas. Meetings are held to find “the one right answer.” No one really listens to anyone else. Everyone is too busy preparing an opposing response. Underlying assumptions go unquestioned and unexamined. And too often, the person who speaks up or disagrees with the majority opinion is labeled as “not a team player.” Add in today’s hectic pace and a general disdain for meetings, and it is understandable that people look for closure rather than exposure to new ideas.light

However, innovation and expansive thinking emerge from nurturing different points of view. Doing so requires the pioneering spirit of exploring new territory. Innovation by its very nature requires experimentation and failure. Thomas Edison is the classic example. After more than 1,000 attempts to invent the first long-lasting electric light bulb, he was successful inventing bulbs that stayed lit for only a few minutes. One of his colleagues asked, “Mr. Edison, don’t you feel you are a failure?” Without reservation, he answered, “Not at all. Now I definitely know more than a thousand ways not to make a light bulb.”

Sadly, the culture in many organizations dictates that mistakes are bad and should be avoided at all costs. Employees are criticized or even ridiculed for mistakes. This stems from early learning in institutions where mistakes meant a lower grade and even possible consequences at home. Often this attitude continues into the workplace, where the aversion to mistakes is continued. Consider how these stultifying lessons continue to pile on: Sue gets reprimanded in front of peers for making errors and feels humiliated. Consequence: In the future, she will be prone to hide her mistakes and not deviate from business as usual. In the same company, Tom is written up for insubordination because he experimented with a new way of doing things, thereby not adhering to long-held company practices. As a result of these and similar incidents, people play it safe. Yet the greatest innovations can come from workers’ own initiatives, not just from an initiative pushed down from the top.

The need for innovation is nothing new, but the recognition that it needs to be a core competency—permeating all departments and all levels of the organization—is relatively recent. Much as leaders once believed that quality was primarily the responsibility of the quality department, so has innovation been primarily confined within the borders of research and development. Frans Johansson, author of the successful book The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts & Cultures , advocates that companies also be willing to take their efforts at innovation beyond the borders of their business to include other industries and disciplines. He called this cross-fertilization of ideas the Medici effect, after the fifteenth-century banking family that broke down traditional barriers separating disciplines and cultures to ignite the Renaissance.

A culture of innovation needs to be nurtured until it is deeply rooted into the psyche of every employee. However, this cannot be done successfully with announcements, slogans, or playing on people’s fear of competition. Ironically, innovative thinking also is needed to maintain traditional practices that still add value and to cultivate a daily crop of new ideas. The culture is about recognizing individual mind-sets and accepting perceived borders and limitations in order to question them. These mind-sets typically come from each employee’s individual experiences and culture. They are empowered by past experiences that have become hardwired into the brain. Couple that with the fact that brains are structured to simplify and categorize massive amounts of daily stimuli, and it is no wonder people get caught in a duality of right and wrong. The pattern becomes “Success is good; failure is bad.” When new information is compatible with what is known, it is accepted as the truth; when it does not mesh with preconceived ideas or past experiences, it receives little consideration. As a result, opportunities to innovate and change the status quo are missed. Research shows that the act of recognizing and surfacing unconscious beliefs offers the highest leverage for change.

Understanding and acknowledging the current situation in comparison to the desired state is the first step in any change initiative. It is impossible to change something that is not acknowledged or understood, which makes it difficult to grow into a future culture steeped in innovative thinking.

Begin with asking tough questions of everyone in the organization. Dig up deeply embedded beliefs and assumptions that are, more than likely, not in sync with the stated company vision and values. Here are some questions for starters.

• What are your own and your organization’s assumptions and beliefs related to innovation, particularly innovation that deals with new practices and methods? New product ideas tend to fare better, but, again are they encouraged and tested? Begin a dialogue with employees at all levels and in all departments to learn how steeped the company is in “Business as usual” and “That won’t work here.”

• Has an emphasis on process improvement, standardization, and reducing variation created a myopic focus on improving what you are already doing to the virtual exclusion of creativity and innovation? Think of the demise of the fully integrated steel mills versus today’s mini-mills; think of Kodak improving in film and print while virtually ignoring digital photography for years.

• What are your own and your organization’s assumptions and beliefs about risk taking, mistakes, and lack of immediate positive outcomes? Ask yourself if you stick with a new idea long enough to see results. Tally the number of initiatives that started over the past 5 to 10 years. Then honestly evaluate the number remaining—in other words, those that maintained their initial momentum. Study the gap between the organization’s actual behavior and the values it espouses about vision, growth, and innovation.

• Do you encourage experimentation, testing hypotheses, or do new ideas get quashed in meetings or die a slow death as they are analyzed, dissected, and debated?
Think of the ensuing dialogue as preparatory work for growing the innovative capabilities that have been lying fallow due to traditional business practices. When transforming a garden, it is not enough to plant verbal seeds. If the ground has been depleted of creative nutrients due to years of leaching the soil with criticism, tight control, and fear, announcing a new gardening program will not be successful.

By taking time to listen carefully and allow fears to emerge, the organization can begin to prepare the soil. Fertilizing with acceptance and courage allows an innovative culture to emerge. As leaders cultivate the vision, innovation will flourish and generate new ideas for years to come.

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