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4 Killers of an Innovative Culture

By: SmallBizClub


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In the corporate world, innovation is the Holy Grail. Yet it’s often suffocated by a company’s own culture. In a recent survey, we found that 40% of innovators rated culture as their number one obstacle, one that’s difficult to overcome. Let’s explore four killers of an innovative culture.

Which cultures are the worst offenders? And what can you do about it?

  1. The perfectionist culture. In a perfectionist culture, teams won’t let anything out of the lab unless everyone is 100% comfortable with it.

What happens as a result:

  • Innovation takes far too long. Promising ideas never progress because the window of opportunity has alreay closed.
  • The ideas that result are too “safe” or are extensions of current offerings. While these ideas may be helpful, they won’t really move the needle.

What you can do:

  • Embrace mistakes. Go out of your way to show that mistakes are OK, as long as they’re not the result of sloppiness. Show that there’s plenty of learning in mistakes and honor the effort that went into failed initiatives.
  • Educate. Teach leaders to understand that innovation involves unanticipated setbacks. Missing the mark doesn’t mean you’re bad at innovating. It’s a normal part of the process.
  • Give permission. Have leaders give employees the green light to be less than perfect. Then model this from the top down.
  1. The overly consensus-driven culture. When consensus is king, everyone wants to be friendly and a part of everything. But this makes it hard to innovate, go against the grain, or make unpopular decisions. An even tougher variant of a consensus culture occurs when anyone can say “no” to a new idea, but no single person can say “yes” to a new concept.

What happens as a result:

  • By the time all stakeholders have approved an idea, it’s been boiled down to blandness, and teams have lost precious time.

What you can do:

  • Shield new ideas. Build a separate “lane” to process new ideas. New ideas can’t be held to the same timelines, expectations, and levels of scrutiny that are applied to existing business lines. That will squelch the life out of them.
  • Promote speed. Take a stand for speed over consensus. Breaking the cycle of consensus must come from the top.
  • Streamline decisions. Consider ways to streamline and clarify decision-making rules. For instance, you might categorize the types of major decisions, write out who has the authority to make them, and then live up to those guidelines.
  1. The know-it-all culture. In know-it-all cultures, people are expected to be experts in the ideas they propose, even if these ideas are in the early stages or outside a person’s purview.

What happens as a result:

  • People are afraid to look dumb and self-censor their ideas.
  • People spend incredible amounts of time researching, defending, and justifying their ideas, often far beyond what’s necessary and at the expense of moving the ideas forward in a timely manner.

What you can do:

  • Show that curiosity matters. Take Microsoft as an example. It has a tradition called “Researcher of the Amazing,” where team members share interesting things they’ve learned during a biweekly meeting, no matter if it’s related to their direct line of work or not.
  • Keep asking questions. Ask questions you know people will struggle to answer—and don’t expect them to. Discuss every question in depth before you go about finding an answer to it.
  1. The reactive vs. proactive culture. In this culture, everyone says they support innovation, but innovation efforts get deprioritized when day-to-day issues come up.

What happens as a result:

  • Everyone says they want to innovate, but it’s not actually happening. There’s a lack of urgency to change.

What you can do:

  • Define your strategy. Develop a solid and clear strategy for innovation, and make sure key stakeholders have bought into it. Articulate what kind of innovation work you want to see and from whom.
    For example, you could show that the role of an innovation group isn’t to bear the sole responsibility for the entire organization’s innovation efforts. Instead, it’s to focus on big innovations or moonshots that wouldn’t have a home elsewhere in the organization.
  • Communicate. Repeat your vision relentlessly and urgently. This is a message that demands repetition. You can never take your foot off the accelerator.
  • Make innovation part of performance reviews. Start with soft behaviors: Do employees exhibit innovative behaviors? What barriers might be holding them back?
    As your organization becomes better at innovating, consider linking executive compensation to innovation metrics, such as the percentage of revenue generated from products that didn’t exist three years ago.

The bottom line

By recognizing and tackling killer cultures, your company can keep its creative edge sharp and make innovation the norm, not the exception.

Author: Steve Wunker is the managing director of New Markets Advisors, a global consulting firm focused on innovation, and co-author of the new book The Innovative Leader: Step-by-Step Lessons from Top Innovators for You and Your Organization. Learn more at innovativeleaderbook.com.

Published: May 6, 2024

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