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How to Build and Maintain an Innovative Culture

Posted on March 2nd, 2016 by in Chemical R&D

Inovation in Chemical R&D

Many people talk about an Innovation culture as an aspiration – or point to examples such as Apple, Facebook, Google, etc. I maintain that culture is more an outcome or a result of human behavior when the right environment, infrastructure and leadership is established and reinforced.

In a corporation, building and maintaining an Innovative culture needs to have at least six of these critical elements in order to succeed. In fact, if one these elements are not viable, it could seriously impact the performance of the organization. Like any system, all the components need to be functioning well to optimize the performance.

  • Innovation Strategy – I spoke about this in my last blog. Without a compelling and robust strategy, it’s hard to capture the hearts and minds of an organization on “What, How, and Where” we’re going to win. People need to believe in a challenging goal or set of goals that are aggressive but realistic. Overly aggressive or unrealistic challenges, may gain short term results, but in my experience are never sustainable in the long run.
  • Management Processes and Organizational Structure – The organization needs to look at all of the decision making processes. Do they support or deter an innovation culture? Take Stage Gating – it makes sense to establish more discipline and decision making once a innovation project is established, funded and the team is staffed. But when you’re in the Ideation or Discover phase, you want to keep the process more open, flexible and iterative, allowing an entrepreneurial mindset. Many other management processes are just as critical e.g. Open Innovation, Stage 0, Project Management, Budgeting, Performance Management, etc.

The organization structure needs to support how the work is being accomplished. Regardless if a matrix, functional, or hybrid it needs to be flexible in a way that allows collaboration between project team members. In an Innovative culture, work gets done through projects, and competencies get developed through functions.

  • Competencies – In this category, I include people, tools, infrastructure and enabling technologies. People are the heart and soul of any highly Innovation Company. But does the organization have an ongoing process to evaluate, recruit and maintain the talent that is necessary to win? Does the organization establish the key competencies they need to outsmart the competition?

Too often we staff the organization to win, but we frustrate them with inferior tools, such as IT systems, or don’t give them access to knowledge management systems or analytics. There are tons of new intelligent IT systems that can increase the productivity of each individual by providing early insights or eliminating redundant information requests.

Do you have areas where people can collaborate and be open? Do you send some of your key people to industry conferences that can increase their Innovative capability? Infrastructure, beyond buildings, offices, and meeting rooms, should also be virtual – video, teleconferencing – even hosted group chats that allow for real time collaboration.

  • Reward & Recognition – Your leaders need to reinforce Innovative behavior when they see it. I contend that the most important recognition is the one that comes from an individual’s manager, another leader or a peer and is immediate. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to get the “dinner for two”, the “night on the town” or the “accomplishment award”, but don’t do it 4 weeks after the event has occurred. With the right systems in place, your leaders can do this quickly, e.g. 24 hours.

This is a simple process, but this is an area we fall down, or don’t do it consistently. As for public recognition, be careful – it can backfire. If people feel left out or that the accomplishment wasn’t truly exceptional, you can wind up demotivating more people than intended. So make sure when the VP stands up at the next Town Hall meeting and recognizes an individual or team effort, the majority of the people will be supportive. And please don’t make this a public numbers game. Even if the recognition is private, the word will get around.

  • Communication – A highly Innovative culture communicates at many different levels. It can include CEO or VP hosting quarterly Town Hall meetings or weekly staff meetings with your immediate manager. In my experience, we never communicate enough, especially sharing the Innovation strategy and goals. I know in today’s digital culture, it’s easy to create a newsletter, video blog or webinar – but nothing replaces the human touch and the Q&A that goes on in a leadership driven forum.

Set up a venue where an Innovation project team can share their challenges and solicit feedback, but don’t make this 50 minutes of a PowerPoint presentation and 10 minutes of Q&A.  Do the opposite, 3 to 5 charts and let the audience engage. You’d be surprised at the quality of the dialog and energy flowing in the room.

  • Leadership – I guess I could have made this first, but I wanted to make a point that while you can have all other five components, if you don’t have the top leaders in place supporting these, it will not work. I maintain that leadership sets the tone in the organization. If one of your top leaders is acting and behaving in a way that is contrary to an Innovative culture, you need to make a change. Leaders today need to be engaging, empowering and inclusive. Dictatorial or hierarchal styles do NOT fit in an Innovative culture.

If these six components are not in place or not performing well, engage your leaders in building and maintaining the architecture of your innovative culture.  Develop teams to work on each of these components on a regular basis.  Think of building and innovative culture as a major initiative.  Assign a project leader, assign the teams, and develop a schedule, metrics and feedback. You would be surprised about the progress you can make.

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