Building an Innovative Culture – What Does It Mean?

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by: Idris Mootee

Our move to the new office is almost complete. The latest batch of
Herman Miller Nelson Sweg tables arrived. I always think the starting
point of building an innovative culture is the workplace.

I am a big
believer of open work space particular in our business (see photos
above of our typical work sessions). It reflects who you are and also
shows your collective identity. If done right, it creates a possible
energy sphere that will help organizations overcome many necessary
hurdles that one may encounter during growth. I am seeing the return to
the power of creativity and innovation in the next 10 years as
organization ran of ideas for growth. The kind of thinking – the
emphasis om innovation and invention in all its forms – has always been
revered by entrepreneurs. Steve Jobs credited Land’s inspiration for
the culture of Apple. (Edwin Lands is the founder of Polaroid who owns
more than 500 patents). Not every company has a Steve Job or Edwin
Land, and what do you do when you don’t have one?

What is a high performance culture? What is a creative culture? Will
performance means sacrificing creativity? Are your people motivated to
act like the defender of the company’s culture? Do they know how to
innovate and are they encouraged to bring those ideas to the company? Will they be thinking about how to advance the business without being
explicitly asked what to do? Will they spend their own time dreaming up
new ways to delight customers? Every leader wishes that they have a
culture for all threats to happen. Having the best of both worlds –
performance and creativity. Many are pushing too hard on the
performance front and as a result creativity and innovation suffers,
and so their performances.

For a handful of top performers, however, the picture looks
different. These companies inspire loyalty from customers and
employees, who want to stay and be part of something special. They
generate commitment to go the extra mile, to do the right thing rather
than just the easy thing. At these companies, people not only know what
they should do, they know how to do it and also deeply believe in why
they do it. That’s the power of a high performance culture. Founder and
chairman of Southwest Airlines, puts it this way:”Everything [in our
strategy] our competitors could copy tomorrow.
But they can’t copy the culture–and they know it. It is the ultimate sustainable competitive advantage.

Companies are increasing global, distributed and extended, so culture provides the glue that creates
and a sense of shared purpose. It is easy to wish that there’s a magic
formula and thinking that all high-performance cultures look alike. They
don’t, and that is part of their power. Almost all of them are unique
and often influenced by the personalities of their leaderships. To be
effective, a high-performance culture must be customized – called it
“culture couture”.

Making it real requires a is a mixture of common values, beliefs,
and their manifestation in everyday behavior (including the
leadership). Sometimes it becomes a visible artifacts, such as a
mission statement or companies news letter. This is becoming less
effective these days. What good is a piece of writing that so company
is acting in it. Clues  exist in the ways people act every day on the
job, in the language, in the conversations. How much time does the CEO
spend with the staff and customers? Does he/she spend time on the field
listening to customer problems? How many bottom-up ideas get
implemented and celebrated? Will the CEO personally encourage new ideas
and make sure they receive the right attention?  This is not about
talking innovation, it is about showing that innovation is part of the
authentic core–the unique soul and personality that define a company’s
character. Here are some ideas that CEOs can do:

Create “buffer zones” for the most innovative people: Creating
“buffer zones” means building a kind of  cocoon around the innovative
teams. That means eliminating the ways that policies or other work
pressures get in the way or discourage the experimentation in the early

Use outsiders as “innovation catalysts:” This can make a difference
as they not only bringing fresh thinking but also tools and
cross-industry experiences. Try to encourage the use of “design
thinking” to conceptualize new ideas and explore all possibilities.

them room to “play:” For innovators, anything they can do to mess
around with the kinds of data or projects that they see as helpful –
will be helpful. But during the incubation stage, activities that may
look like useless diversions – that may not even look like work – are
all necessary to allow the deeper parts of the brain to solve a problem
and make new connections. 

Don’t look for quick results: Any
team can develop innovative solutions, there is no business or customer
interfaces that can not be improved through play and modification. But
to build a culture that truly encourages innovation, the pressure to
get immediate results will yield only incremental improvements, and the
need to meet deadlines can sometimes kill the creative process while
they are still fragile.

Commit to driving the best ideas through to implementation:
Innovators are seldom the best salespeople for their ideas although
there are a few exceptions. CEOs who want to encourage innovation must
act as the first-line filter to test the best ideas and solutions,
choosing which ones are the right ones to see through to fruition. Then the they must appoint advocate commit to the internal sales and
marketing project to build coalitions. This takes courage and
persistence, and an ability to work the political and social process
involved in getting others to adapt to innovation. 

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