Month: April 2012
As discussed in a post last week, innovation is in part a cultural phenomenon – something that is in a lot of ways the antithesis of the culture that naturally appears in a successful firm over time. But its easy to change the culture to harness innovation, right?
You can’t be blamed for believing this, with the plethora of books and management consultants touting numerous ‘can’t fail’ ways to change the company culture from the CEO down as a way to boost innovation and create a renewed energy. Unfortunately, this is a lot easier said or written about than done. And what about those of us that work in a company that either thinks it is already innovative enough or has no interest in changing what works now for the larger corporation? How can an individual create real organizational change to increase and drive innovation without the power of the CEO to direct internal marketing campaigns and HR efforts?
As companies grow they require increased systems, processes, and hierarchy in order to manage the growth and control profitability. Eventually, this driving force becomes self-sustaining – with success comes bureaucracy (perhaps necessarily) and people that function well within a structured and organized environment. Eventually those innovative and driving employees that were the root of the success of the company either change to fit into the new dominant culture or are forced out. We justify this by saying that they aren’t a cultural fit anymore. At some point though in the progression of most firms it will become necessary to shift the culture to recapture that innovative spirit, at the very least within individual business units or groups that are looking for growth and new opportunities.
To understand how to impact the culture to improve innovation we must first understand two aspects of culture that can limit innovation:
Shared Beliefs: In most organizations, as a result of the filtering process that occurs during hiring and induction and that continues through teams shared experiences a strong set of shared beliefs will appear. These can be a strong tool to strengthen a corporation, leading to more delegation, decreased monitoring, higher satisfaction, higher motivation, faster coordination, and more communication, but importantly, also to less experimentation and less information collection. Experimentation and information gathering are at the core of innovation, so while shared beliefs can be great for the corporation they can also severely limit innovation for a team.
Focus on Process Excellence and Cost Cutting: As stated above, a successful firm will have developed a strong bureaucracy by the time change for innovations sake is necessary. A focus on strong process excellence and cost cutting (along with out-sourcing and quality) are essential to deliver consistent returns to Wall Street. However, they are also an enemy of innovation as they look to eliminate complex projects that don’t fit the model and discourage high risk activities that require investments of time and money.
Knowing that these two things; Shared Beliefs and Focus on Process Excellence and Cost Cutting are major parts of the problem is only the start. How might the Osmotic Innovation change their team using this knowledge?
Disrupting Shared Beliefs: One cannot eliminate all sources of shared beliefs – so long as employees work together they will gradually build this characteristic. However, manager selection of employees plays a very strong role in sustaining shared beliefs. By selecting employees that are ‘culture fits’ or that think like the manager they sustain and strengthen this culture. Hiring people that are viewed as cultural risks while having the right skill set is one possible way to shift shared beliefs to encourage more experimentation and information gathering. Note that these should be people in important positions – having a few crazy technicians won’t disrupt the way that a group of managers or senior scientists think. It has been shown that culture and shared beliefs tend to flow from the important people within an organization so an even easier mechanism might be to put those who are willing to buck the status quo in your current organization into positions of responsibility and power or appoint them to take a lead on innovation initiatives.
Really Focus on Innovation: Because most employees see their compensation and reward systems being tied to the values of process excellence, cost cutting, and quality finding time or initiative to work on innovation or the willingness to support high programs is unlikely. Instead innovation needs to become part of everyone’s day-job, and should be tied to their annual performance / compensation reviews. This shows the commitment to innovation that can encourage creative employees to begin committing to new ideas and innovation. As was learned in the 1980’s at the joint Toyota-GM NUMMI venture, changing culture starts with changing what people do – the new way of thinking will come. John Shook has described this in a model based on Edgar Schein’s original model of corporate culture; shown to the right. Apply this lesson by making employees responsible to deliver innovation as part of their job function. The new way of thinking (and culture) will follow. Merely advertising a new motto or idea to change peoples thinking isn’t enough to change values and attitudes and what people really do.
Short of wholesale changes driven by the CEO and Board, culture change to increase innovation can be managed and implemented within smaller parts of the organization by recognizing the key factors that drive and develop culture. Disrupting the entrenched belief systems to encourage experimentation and new knowledge gathering along with making innovation a measured part of a teams job function can be the levers used by the Osmotic Innovator to change a team or organizations culture from the ground up.
In today’s corporate environment, we are expected to be innovative in addition to managing a stressful daily routine of juggling priorities between work (project deadlines, attending meetings, writing reports) and family. Of course, this means we’re often working to meet tight deadlines. This doesn’t trouble some people, who frequently say “I work better meeting a deadline at the last minute” or “I get more done under stress”, but is it really true that some people can perform at their best under stress – particularly when it comes to innovation?
Let’s take a step back for a moment and obtain a better understanding of what stress is. Referred to as the “father of stress”, Hans Selye was an endocrinologist who performed extensive studies of the response to stress by biological organisms. He proposed there were two types of stress: eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress). Eustress is a positive form of stress that provides challenges, motivation, and leads you to an act of fulfilment. An example outcome of this would be returning to college to further your education which provides you with more opportunities in life. However, most of us are more familiar with the negative type of stress. How does this negative stress affect our body and our ability to innovate?
Distress is the physical or psychological demand we respond to and comes from various sources. Although there are two types of work related stress: Physical/Task related stress and Psychological stress, we will focus mostly on the later. Psychological stress is complex as it encompasses the following:
- Lack of control/predictability examines our desire to have flexibility in our work hours and autonomy (extent to which we can control how and when we perform our job related tasks). Many employees who do not have flexible work hours and have little or no input into decision making are reported to be less motivated and less likely to take on additional responsibilities.
- Interpersonal Conflict refers to interactions with any co-worker that is negative or unfriendly. This is perhaps the most common source of distress and can result from something simple like scarce resources to more complex situations where there is personal conflict among team members.
- Role Stressors refer to the stress that comes from the multiple tasks that are required from employees due to their position. Encompassed within this definition is the stress one feels when there is no clear definition to their job tasks, and when demands from work become overwhelming.
- Work/Family conflict is defined when the demands of career and family overlap. Being late or unavailable to show for an important family event due to an excessive workload will certainly be a cause of stress.
Now that stress has been defined, it is important to understand the effect it has on us physiologically. How a body manages long term and short term negative distress has been termed General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). GAS is comprised of three stages: Alarm reaction, Stage of Resistance, and finally Stage of Exhaustion. Placement of an individual into any of these stages depends upon the time duration of the stress experienced, and provides more understanding how the body will handle the stress at the stage a person is in. Without going into too much detail on each stage, essentially it is important to note that continued stress can lead to a weakened immune system, mental fatigue, and even heart disease. In application to innovation, there are behavioural consequences that will also affect the individual. There are numerous studies linking stress with impairing memory, lowering creativity, and causing poor decision making.
Considering all this, why do some people think stress actually motivates them? Because they are unknowingly referring to eustress, not distress. It has been hypothesized that eustress can positively motivate a person to act, but up to a point. Too much eustress, and the performance begins to decline. With distress, Industrial-Organizational Psychologists have found that any amount has a negative effect on performance. This is important to consider when thinking about innovation and how it can hinder creativity. Knowing that eustress is something we all experience at some point in our lives, try a few of the suggestions below:
- Listen to instrumental music – not only will it lower stress, but if you play classical, it may even have the added bonus of increasing creativity.
- Utilize the calming or fun aspect of certain locations to remove yourself from the everyday routine. Go to an arcade, outdoors, or somewhere that is different from your everyday surroundings.
- On a piece of paper, write down all your worries or stressors while at the same time imagining what you are writing is escaping and erasing itself from your mind. Once finished, destroy the paper (light on fire, tear up into pieces, etc) and take a deep breath.
- Meditate. Even if it’s just clearing your mind or focusing on some external object, you are giving yourself a chance to momentarily escape the stress.
In most corporations these suggestions may seem by management to be nothing more than diversions. One must therefore consider the possible need for proper education to encourage everyone to understand the health risks of unmanaged stress and the benefits of finding and practicing ways to alleviate it. Hopefully, with performing some of these suggestions on a daily basis, you (and your organization) can be a less stressful and more creative and innovative environment.
Levy, Paul E. Industrial Organizational Psychology. 3rd Ed. New York: Worth Publishers, 2009.
Landy, F. J. & Conte, M. Work in the 21st Century: An Introduction to Industrial and Organizational Psychology. 2nd Ed. Malden, Ma.: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
Diversity of thought within corporations is a key driver of innovation. This statement is rarely challenged by those charged with building the innovation programs of companies but how often does this need for diversity actually impact the way companies hire and retain their staff base? Often the culture of a corporation is thought of as a sort of open window, allowing many diverse individuals through and only imparting influence on their behaviors and attitudes once the individual is employed.
While this argument may be reasonable for some functions where skills are readily transferable across many different types of businesses, the key participants in your corporation’s innovation program are far more likely to rely on a very similar combination of education and experience to perform highly. This in turn means that the effect of culture of a corporation is more like a filter than a window.
If thought diversity is a driver of successful innovation we must then recognize that the culture inherent to our innovation programs constrains the diversity available for these programs. Common phrases such as “culture fit is the most important factor for career success around here” or “hiring a (non core specialist) is an indulgence we haven’t the resource for” are the verbalization’s of this in action.
What happens then is that you have a program full of common professionals, maybe scientists, engineers and marketers and, while there may be some variety of thought within this narrow segment, more often than not this will pale in relation to the diversity of thought in the larger world. Think of the circus – a bunch of highly creative artists who probably see the lion tamer as the dour authoritarian compared to a pharmaceutical company where the chemist who rides a motorcycle is seen as the risk-taker by the others. The culture in these places necessarily filters the employees and creates a narrow band of thought. However big that band appears from inside it is still a narrow band.
What does this mean for your innovation program? Should you immediately go out and recruit a trapeze artist to broaden your culture? The reality is actually far simpler; your company culture acts in both directions, the trapeze artist is no more likely to apply for your vacancy as you are to join the circus. Where an awareness of diversity constraint can help your program is on the odd occasion where a genuinely divergent thinker has made their way through your company’s filter. This can occur through the recruitment of a massively talented individual whose divergence is tolerated for their skill set but more often it is the result of the normal changes in attitude and motivation that engaged employees experience over time. Unfortunately in many corporations the career path of the divergent thinker is often less than stellar and rather than encouraging this diversity the individual ends up facing a “conform or leave” decision. Within your innovation program however these people are like gold. To bring a different “thought world” to your program while still feeling they have a place within your company is a rare set of circumstances and should be recognized as such. The challenge for the innovation program manager is not in helping them conform but in maintaining their non-conformity. To get the most out of their novel perspective they should also be put in high contact roles with other groups, something that can sometimes feel counter intuitive to a manager. Managing thought diversity to improve innovation is an opportunity that only larger corporations, with significant division of labor can hope to achieve. Unfortunately it is also one opportunity that is most easy to ignore.
Every so often we take a look at a new or iconic product to evaluate the innovation (or lack thereof) behind it. One of us will argue for good, one for bad, and the third will make a final judgement.
Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.
This week the Segway comes under our microscope:
Innovative – In 2001, there was word of new technology soon to be unveiled that would become a whole new way of transportation. Venture capitalist John Doerr claimed it would be more important than the internet, while Steve Jobs was quoted as saying it was “as big a deal as the PC”. That December, the Segway was revealed in Bryant Park on Good Morning America. Despite the hype and publicity, the Segway struggled to sell as many units as expected and still to this day remains in a niche market. However, marketing and publicity aside, we must focus solely on what inventor Dean Kamen provided: a two-wheeled, self-balancing battery powered vehicle termed Segway. By seemingly being able to read the riders mind, it will move in the direction desired by use of advanced sensing, smart battery management, electric propulsion, and dynamic stabilization. Balancing is accomplished by use of dual computers utilizing proprietary software, two tilt sensors, and five gyroscopic sensors. A feedback signal continually adjusting for deviations from expected behaviour moves the wheels forward or backward as needed for either balance or propulsion. By leaning the Segway away from or towards the riders center of mass, it senses this change and adjusts the speed to accommodate maintaining the balance of the rider. To turn, the rider manipulates a control on the handlebar right or left. Considering that prior to this invention, a bicycle was the only other two wheeled mode of transportation, we have come a long way to make life easier.
Not Innovative – Innovation is a multi-faceted process. Creating a technology, no matter how groundbreaking, is not innovative on its own. It is the application of that technology into a form that meets the needs of a market that makes a truly innovative product. In that regard, the Segway was successful as an invention, but not as an innovation.
The Segway begs the question: can something be innovative if no one’s buying it? Since its unveiling over a decade ago, Segway has found use in a niche market, but has not increased the efficiency or convenience of travel enough to justify its price tag to the average person. A better word to describe Segway would be “novel.” It might have earned some interested looks early on, but in the long run has not changed consumer habits. It did not disrupt the market in any meaningful way—Honda, Toyota, and company haven’t exactly scrambled to put out their own “people movers” in response. And for a device that promised to revolutionize transportation for the masses, that cannot be qualified as anything else but failure.
All innovation is goal-driven, and Segway’s hype may have created a goal that was unattainable. Perhaps with a more modest outlook, it would be easy to see Segway as an innovative product with specific applications (law enforcement/paramedic, factory use, mobility assistance) that could eventually trickle down to full scale consumer use. As it stands now, most consumers know it as the butt of jokes like Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
The Verdict– Innovative! While it is true that the Segway has not lived up to its early hype, the story of the Segway is really more a story of over zealous advertizing than poor innovation. Had the original predictions for the Segway been more tame, perhaps opining that its future was one of city tourism, mall cops and enthusiast groups then we would never be having this debate. The Segway is not a bad product, it serves a use, is loved by some, used by few and even the counsel for the negative admits it is novel. Can we rule a product not innovative simply because it didn’t deliver against overly ambitious sales forecasts? I say not, the yardstick of innovation cannot be defined by the modesty of marketing executives.
Ever wonder how the best ideas come together? Here Steven Johnson gives a preview of his book on the topic while detailing the importance of allowing ideas to develop, mingle, and grow.