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Creating a culture of innovation in your organisation

Wilhelm Crous - Friday, July 12, 2019

How do organisations cope in a disruptive world? 

The conventional wisdom is to innovate continuously. But many organisations battle to create an innovation culture that delivers results.

In a recent issue of Harvard Business Review, Prof Gary Pisano highlights that to nurture a culture of innovation, it's not enough to just implement rising HR trends like psychological safety, a non-hierarchical structure, team collaboration and a willingness to experiment (and sometimes fail). He advises doing the following as well:

1. Create a culture which allows a tolerance for failure but has no tolerance for incompetence. Innovative organisations are intolerant of incompetence. They set exceptionally high standards of performance for their people. They recruit the best talent they can. “Exploring risky ideas that ultimately fail is fine, but mediocre technical skills, sloppy thinking, bad working habits and poor management are not.” Apple, Google and Pixar are excellent examples for having such cultures.

2. There should be a willingness to experiment, however it should be highly-disciplined. Pisano makes the point that discipline-orientated cultures select experiments carefully based on their potential learning value, and by design they are rigorous to yield as much information as possible (relative to costs). They establish clear criteria at the outset for deciding whether to move forward with, modify, or kill an idea.

3. Cultivate psychological safety but be brutally candid. It has been established that psychologically-safe environments support learning and innovation. If people are afraid to criticise, debate the ideas of others and raise counter perspectives, innovation can be stifled. However, psychological safety is a two-way street: If it is safe for me to criticise your ideas, it must be safe for you to criticise mine – whether you are higher or lower in the organisation.

4. Collaboration but with individual accountability. Prof Pisano makes the point that: “Well-functioning innovation systems need information, input and significant integration and effort from a diverse array of contributors. People who work in a collaborative culture view seeking help from colleagues as natural, regardless of whether providing such help is in their formal job descriptions. They have a sense of collective responsibility. But too often, collaboration gets confused with consensus. And consensus is poison for rapid decision-making and navigating the complex problems associated with transformational innovation. Ultimately, someone has to make a decision and be accountable for it. An accountability culture is one where individuals are expected to make decisions and own the consequences. There is nothing inherently inconsistent about a culture that is both collaborative and accountability-focused.”

5. Flat but strong leadership. In culturally flat organisations, people are given wide latitude to take actions, make decisions and voice their opinions. Culturally-flat organisations can typically respond more rapidly to changing circumstances because decision-making is decentralised and closer to the sources of relevant information. They tend to generate a greater diversity of ideas than hierarchical ones. Lack of hierarchy, however, does not mean lack of leadership. Flat organisations require stronger leadership than hierarchical ones. Flat organisations often dissolve into chaos when leadership fails to set clear strategic priorities and directions. Again, Google and Amazon are excellent examples of being flat in which decision-making and accountability are pushed down, yet both companies have incredibly strong and visionary leaders who communicate goals and articulate key principles about how the organisation should think.

This calls for frank discussions about the harder realities of innovative cultures. There’s no room for marshmallow management. Leaders must recognise that the freedom to experiment, fail, collaborate, speak up and make decisions comes with difficult responsibilities. And an unwavering commitment to high-performance is therefore part and parcel of a successful innovation culture.

At our Corporate Innovation Conference, Rory Moore, Emerging Technology Leader, Innovation Pioneer and Dynamic Team Lead at Accenture will discuss how to create and sustain a culture of innovation in your organisation. In addition, Adam Gottlich, Head of Behavioural Science & Innovation at Standard Bank will unpack how to build, lead and sustain an innovative organisation. 

Don't miss this two-day conference, taking place on 28-29 August at the Radisson Blu Gautrain Hotel in Sandton. You'll have the opportunity to hear how companies such as Discovery Vitality, TymeBank, Ucook, The Innovation Hub and Impact Hub drive innovation in their organisations.

The Corporate Innovation Conference will feature case studies that highlight how innovation can be accelerated, how to develop an innovation DNA and how to establish and benefit from an innovation ecosystem. This event is ideal for executives, from all disciplines, who are responsible for guiding their organisation into a profitable future. Click here to view the full programme and line-up of speakers.

 We hope to see you there!

Source: Pisano, G. P. (2019, January-February). The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures. Harvard Business Review, pp. 62-71.




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