Creating and Sustaining a Culture of Innovation

Last month I gave a talk to SME business leaders and managers in Hereford on behalf of NMITE. NMITE is a start-up university (two of my favourite words!) and well worth checking out for an innovative approach to Higher Education. They’d approached me to add some innovation content that would resonate for their audience and offer some practical value.

It would have been simple enough to offer a session on detailed innovation management processes but for an hour-long interactive session I knew I needed a more compelling and engaging narrative. With a diverse array of participants whose businesses ranged in scale from one employee to dozens I also needed an innovation process that would work for any scale of operation.

Here are some of the key messages I shared:

Innovation is about Exploiting your existing opportunities whilst Exploring for the next opportunities

Innovation is hard to do because you need to be a little schizophrenic; trying to carve out the time for exploring what the future looks like whilst cranking the handle on your business today is really tough! One feels very speculative whilst the other feels very necessary, and in those situations the necessary day-to-day tends to win out. But if you never plan ahead eventually your customers, suppliers, the legislation, or your competitors will ultimately shift in such a way that your existing model fails.

The presentation tries to help us all think about squaring that circle – by embedding the innovation process as a habit. If innovation is a thing you do sometimes then it becomes ‘innovation theatre’. If its a habit it just happens. Culture is what happens when no-one is looking: how do you embed innovation as a culture that just happens?

Individual Innovation & Collective Innovation

Before you can talk about collective or organisational innovation I find it helpful to talk about individual innovation; how do you innovate as an individual and how does that contribute to a collective process?

I‘ve talked elsewhere about creative diet and exercise, but essentially to innovate as an individual you need to both feed yourself good and diverse inspiration and you need to exercise the creative muscles so you can get better at producing innovative outcomes.

That same logic also applies collectively; how does your team assemble the raw materials for new ideas and how does it legitimise the practice required to get good at it because you won’t get it right first time or every time.

You need a Process, it needn’t be formal, but the team needs the competence and confidence to use it.

The process of innovating is ultimately quite simple: Notice something, develop a hunch about an opportunity for value-creation (by solving a problem or exploiting a gap), test your hunches are real, test some candidate solutions work, iterate a lot, execute on the best version.

We might codify that more formally as: Gather data, synthesise insights, generate ideas, evaluate ideas, prototype and test, deliver impact.

However you want to describe it, those are the steps and stages. However, the process doesn’t work if you or your team don’t know how to conduct those steps, don’t have the confidence to use the methods, or don’t feel like they have permission to do so.

However, lots of organisations have worked out how to do at least some of those steps reliably.

Find a way to embrace small iterative failures that allow you to learn fast

Failing within a company can be really hard to do. But failure is always a part of any creative process. How can you enable your team to fail?

The whole presentation is linked below as a PDF. By all means contact me if you’d like me to present a version for your organisation or event.

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