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How to inspire a culture of innovation


Creating innovation

How can you build innovation in a corporate culture? Asher Rickayzen from Relume has some top tips on how to be the spark that creates an innovative culture you can use in organisations of any size

Innovation is often associated with great process but it owes much more to helpful culture. Cultures that foster innovation have certain characteristics that encourage people to take more risk, thrive on disagreement, be braver and use failure as a springboard for learning. Seven of the principles that seem to be enshrined in these cultures are outlined here. As with any complex system, these principles are interconnected with each other.

1. Speak your truth

Truth telling is a powerful force for change in its own right. While it sounds simple we get tripped up; we censor ourselves to make things more palatable; we rush to judgement; we undervalue what we are seeing or sensing or thinking because no-one else is mentioning it; often we are so well-trained as good corporate citizens that we do not raise ‘problems’ unless we can also propose the solutions.

Nurturing it - Bruce Herrald, who was responsible for strategy at the time of the reinvention of IBM in the early 1980s, used to begin meetings with the phrase ‘the worse we look in here, the better we do out there’.  A wonderfully simple way of making it clear to everyone present that great service, great products and a great brand depend on a willingness to face into what was really happening rather than the ‘Photoshopped’ version we might be tempted to express.

2. Responsibly break the rules

Rules are a way of protecting the established way of doing things. If the rules never change then the status quo will prevail and stifle innovation and creativity. Learning how to responsibly break the rules - in other words, understanding why the rules are there but having the courage to take a calculated risk and step outside them - means that new ground will be trodden. Innovative cultures depend on people who are willing to do this.

Nurturing it - Monitor yourself and your organisation for a few days. Every time you encounter a ‘no’, whether that is your instinctive internal response, an actual rule or perhaps an assumed rule, stop and ask yourself  ‘why not? It is just possible that some of the answers to that question might lead you to new possibilities that have remained hidden up until this point. 

3. Join the dots

Innovation is encouraged when as many parts of the overall system are as connected to each other as possible, both formally and informally. Too often the organisational boundaries, which we imagine or we impose, get in the way of sharing knowledge and building the bigger picture. Innovation often happens right at the edges of systems and unless those parts have a voice they remain isolated and under valued.

Nurturing it - Social networking provides an ideal mechanism for enabling conversations to be held across very large distributed groups and for information to travel fast.  Too often, organisations view tools such as Twitter as a threat or a distraction, something to be controlled or excluded from the workplace. HR could play a really important role in helping the organisation to embrace and use these tools rather than investing energy in policing them, which is often the default position.

4. Celebrate failure

The word ‘celebrate’ might seem like a step too far but innovation depends on us taking things into new territories and not knowing what the outcome will be. If we already know the outcome, then by definition we are repeating and not innovating. We should regard those things that tip over into failure as worthy of celebration because they have taken us right to the edge of our knowledge. Even if we cannot bring ourselves to celebrate, we can train ourselves to look at them more deeply.

Nurturing it - Breakdowns can be a wonderful source of breakthroughs. A tool we use in our work at Relume involves methodically confronting breakdowns. We gather together all those involved, forensically join together the different pieces, separate the drama or stories from the facts and usually find that the real genesis of the failure was much further back in time than the actual failure itself. Above everything else, this enables us to identify alternative choices and possibilities so we do not simply repeat the same mistakes.

5. Learn to unlearn

So much of what we do is based on the ‘truths’ we have learned about ourselves and about our organisations. If we are willing to embrace the possibility that what we learned yesterday might be of very little use to us today then we begin to pay much more attention to learning rather than the accumulation of ossified knowledge. Letting go of what we have previously held to be true is perhaps the most profound challenge to ourselves and to our organisations when it comes to doing things differently. The more we can develop this capacity, the more we create the opportunity for novelty to emerge.

Nurturing it - Collaborative learning is a powerful way of strengthening our learning capabilities.  Introducing mechanisms such as Peer Learning Groups can be very helpful provided they are given the organisational importance they deserve and some skilled facilitation to help reap the learning that is available. Alongside collaborative learning, simple individual learning tools, such as regularly keeping a reflective learning journal are very helpful in developing a much deeper and more agile learning capability. Self responsible learning is the fuel that drives innovation and change and helps us to examine the underlying assumptions and beliefs that often keep us stuck.

6. Embrace anxiety

Anxiety is a sign that we are stepping onto new ground which feels much less safe and less certain. It is completely understandable for us to be on high alert - as human beings it is very unlikely that we would still be around as a species if we had not developed strong survival instincts when in new territory. If we return to familiar ground we might be able to satisfy our own need for reduced anxiety and more comfort, but we have lost the opportunity to explore something new.

Nurturing it - Anxiety can be a very positive sign that we are on the verge of a breakthrough but we often interpret it as a bad sign. The more skilled we can become at distinguishing between uncertainty and real danger, the better we are at using anxiety as a powerful indicator of new discovery rather than a bugle call for retreat. One way we can do this is by asking ourselves ‘What is the worst that can happen here? Is this actually dangerous or is it simply unfamiliar?’.

7. Cultivate resilience

Innovation often comes at a cost. The six principles described above require that we are brave, persistent, awake and willing to confront difficulties. If we are feeling fragile, under resourced, vulnerable or exhausted they become more difficult; we have the tendency to ‘play small’ and the cultures we help to create suffer as a result. Resilience, the ability to bounce back with spirit, is often confused with endurance, the ability to just keep going despite everything. Both endurance and resilience are needed but endurance alone will not encourage cultures that are innovative over the long term.

Nurturing it - This is a big topic in its own right!  Nurturing resilience requires us to pay attention to four pillars – our physical self, our mental self, our shadow self (i.e. the habits and patterns that are both a strength but can also become our Achilles heel) and our overall sense of purpose. A good starting point is to begin with a simple personal inquiry and score ourselves out of ten for each of these pillars. This might reveal the areas where we need to invest more time, attention or energy both personally and across the wider organisation. 

Asher Rickayzen is a senior consultant and partner in Relume.


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