Every organization feels the squeeze of needing to innovate, but “innovation” is both a squishy and loaded term. What does it mean to innovate and how can organizations empower their people to innovate regardless of the size of their team, as challenges with innovation effect companies large and small.
Recently, Tandem with the help of Joe Steinkamp, Director of Design at ShiftGig hosted an event to help uncover how organizations can harness the best ideas from their people and create a culture where innovation thrives.
What Is Culture?
To understand how you can empower employees to innovate, some parameters and expectations of what a company’s culture consists of needs to be set. We’ve all heard the jokes that culture is a ping pong table and an X-Box in an empty office, but company culture is so much more than what goes on your company’s job posting and the perks listed to entice candidates to apply. Culture is the fuel that powers your engine. It’s the core values and expectations set up to help employees succeed. It’s what influences decisions, risk, and actions throughout all levels of an organization.
How the concept of culture is actually implemented is contingent on who is brought into the organization and how the concept of culture is interpreted. The behaviors of employees should match the values, and if not, adjustments must be made accordingly, whether it’s through selection or development.
Culture Belongs to Everyone, Especially The C-Suite
Many participants in our discussion observed that, especially in large organizations, those at the very top are not frequently thinking of company culture. The executive ranks are often more focused on metrics, revenue and large scale decisions which are certainly crucial to a business’ success, but taking time to consider the cultural impact of a decision is important, so as to allow people to do their best work and make sure the proverbial music and lyrics match each other.
A Sense of Safety
Innovation is challenging and full of unknown factors. The group, almost unanimously, agreed that those being pressed to innovate must feel safe enough in their role to take risks that can lead to incredible solutions but also occasionally lead to failure.
Employees feel safe when there’s a sense of accountability. When team members know exactly what they’re responsible for, and everyone is on the same page regarding the overall goal of an initiative, they’re more likely to do their best work.
Even with parameters in place, the needle won’t move immediately, but people need to move. But in order to move, people tasked with imagining and creating disruptive solutions need to feel safe enough to try different approaches knowing that failure will not necessarily cost them dearly.
Want to Innovate? Take it Outside.
There’s a long-standing thought in the world of great ideas that those tasked with coming up with disruptive solutions should be cloistered off and allowed the agility to do what they need to do to arrive at a viable solution as quickly and cheaply as possible.
During our discussion, we found the idea to be somewhat polarizing. How is this group folded back into the larger part of the organization? How can you ensure the culture created in an innovation group is either replicated throughout the organization as a whole or changed to fit in with everyone else? What about the employees hired to innovate and their ability to assimilate within larger company culture?
What this looks like in practice will help to create new options and encourage leaders to think and plan for long term success. Careful planning around how a digital innovation group is reabsorbed into an organization is crucial for the success of everyone involved. Leaders who have thought it through and haven’t bet the company on the innovation group’s success will likely get better outcomes, and those brought on or relocated to the innovation group understand the objective. If it’s a failure, don’t dwell on it; it should be a blip in the company’s history. If it’s a success, everyone should know and celebrate it to reinforce the choices of the company.
And of course, when discussing company culture, what you’re really talking about is people. It’s a common question, whether or not culture is something you can develop, or if it’s simply the proverbial special sauce that only works when you hire the right mixture of people.
People often do rise to the occasion of doing their best work when they feel a sense of extreme ownership and a shared fate with their team members. One member in the group quipped that the more a team “goes through it together,” the more trust they have amongst the team and thus produce better work.
Above all, the old adage that those who treat their employees well will enjoy the benefits of a staff that, in turn, truly cares about outcomes and customers still rings true.
While this conversation has points that don’t seem totally related, they really are. No clear sense of your company culture leads to inadequate hiring decisions, which leads to constant adjustment, which leaves no room for true innovation. Occasionally, companies may want to put innovation outside of the organization to allow people to move more quickly and decisively. This can be both good and bad, as it can be difficult to fold that particular team back into the mix. What are some initiatives you’ve tried to supplement your company culture?
If you found this post intriguing or interesting, please feel free to check out our other Tandem Executive Network events at www.tandemexecnetwork.com. We’d love to host you at our next event.