In the Media 

Cultural Imperative or Functional Objective?


Innovation and Continuous Improvement (CI) regularly form part of business strategies, only to be delegated to the level of an initiative that is held and led by a specific function within an organisation. The challenge with this is that both are based more on how people “behave” and “think” rather than on the adoption of a particular methodology e.g. LEAN or AGILE, or the establishment of a particular forum. Organisations that are recognised as innovative or exceptional at driving continuous improvement have this embedded in the cultural DNA, not in a process or function.

It Requires Shifting What You Value

Innovation and CI require a fundamental shift in what people value, and are valued for in an organisation. The principles that underpin continuous improvement speaks glibly of the concept of “fail fast, fail forward”, yet how many organisations create an environment where people feel safe to admit their mistakes, or encourage the discipline to reflect and learn from the mistakes made? Behavioural economics highlights that people only continue doing what they perceive as value adding.

Leadership needs to model this shift, by actively creating spaces and changing conversations in the business so that they encourage the right rigour in qualifying, tracking and supporting the ideas that are created. Leaders modelling and succeeding also creates an experience where others can directly see the value of doing things differently. In most organisations this requires significant unlearning of the ingrained management mindset that favours critical thinking. Critical thinking by default will highlight the deficit and constrain creativity rather than actively encourage the right level of risk and opportunity taking.  The critical thinking elicits language and behaviour that speak to constraints, deficits, risks and concerns. Adopting a more appreciative and solution orientated language, begins to focus people on what they have, what they want, what they need to do differently to succeed and what they ultimately can achieve.

How do you define and recognise the value people contribute? How should this fundamentally shift the conversations you have and the way you engage with people?

Stepping out of Your Role (Organisational Box)

Similarly both innovation and CI require people to step out of their traditional roles, and break some fundamental organisational rules or norms, particularly those related to “what your job is, and what it is not”. To solve many organisational challenges, or find workable innovative solutions requires working across the value chain or connecting different capabilities or pieces of knowledge together. If this is not how things are done, then people who do attempt to take the right levels of ownership required to solution and innovate effectively probably will experience significant resistance. The resistance will come from those who believe the change agent is impinging on the value that they traditionally add in their function or role. This resistance is the norm, and many capable people have damaged their careers or exited organisations because of the way their thinking is rejected or stigmatised.  Doing the “right” thing and taking on additional ownership is very seldom valued at first by those entrenched in the old and current way of doing things.

Many people who are consciously brought into drive specific changes and innovation often fail even with the “right” cross-functional mandate. It requires significant effort to align leaders at all levels and ensure they understand and are actively supporting the change. It is key to embedding a willingness to make some of the difficult choices related to the desired shifts in how people need to do things.

How do you shape roles where people are expected to work across the business? How are these roles defined and contracted in “virtual” teams? How do you ensure there is a shared purpose and alignment of leaders across the business?

Changing the Budgeting and Planning Paradigm

A key cultural artefact for most organisations is the annual budgeting process flowing into a quarterly and then monthly reporting cycle. The impact of this often goes unrecognised as being a significant shaper of how people think and behave in a business. This cycle tends to create a brief annual window for people to figuratively step away from the business and at the very least think at least 12 months ahead. Being able to think longer term allows for a fundamentally different perspective of the business and therefore greater possibility for change. However most strategic processes are connected to a deep sense of cynicism “will we actually implement this, this time”. The cynicism is based on the experience for many that shortly after the planning process is complete, people are once again immersed in delivering on short term monthly, weekly or daily tasks. Leaders and managers often orientate their teams towards achieving these shorter term goals, which by default limits possibility and therefore stifles creativity. The organisational “drumbeat” drops the horizon, and begins to orientate people to addressing the day to day challenges, vs. developing longer term solutions that will shift the problems they face.

It is fundamental for leaders to regularly create the space “capacity” to do the longer term thinking work. The longer term view enables a fundamental paradigm shift that is critical to building a solution orientated set of conversations and allowing the creativity to emerge for innovation. A strategy is not a strategy until it is shaping and aligning thinking and decision making at all levels within the business. More importantly a strategy cannot be owned until it taps into the creativity of those who execute on it to shape the solutions that will enable it to become a reality.

How have you enlisted people at all levels in shaping the strategic narrative? How do regularly create space (Capacity) to work longer term on the business and shift people from focusing and working short term in the business? How do you track ownership of the strategy through the creativity of the people who are living and executing on the strategy?

Nurturing Contrary Points of View

Perhaps one of the most difficult cultural tenants to move is the prevailing set of beliefs and points of view that shape the values and mindset of people at all levels in the organisation. It is these beliefs that shape the many unconscious choices people make moment to moment, that ultimately shapes their behaviour. Linked to this is an entrenched set of unconscious biases that creep into organisational cultures. As obvious as it may seem from the term unconscious biases, people often do not recognise them, and therefore do not recognise when they are limiting the choices, or opportunities to change the way things are done.

It is often courageous leaders that create the space for disparate or contradictory points of view. Particularly when a significant and traditional sign of “good” leadership is the ability to align and converge people around a shared vision and set of values. Leaders managing the balance between converging people on a shared view, and allowing for constructive dialogue with disparate points of view is essential for businesses that are striving for innovation and continuous improvement. It requires leaders with high Emotional Intelligence and skill in incubating divergent thinking to allow for the new to emerge. To achieve this often requires “incubator” teams or areas in the business that firstly are not subsumed by the prevailing mindset, but also do not disrupt the organisation until they have something that has been partially matured and tested.

What approaches or spaces do you create to allow the inclusion of diverse voices and points of view to be heard?

Innovation and continuous improvement are becoming fundamental to developing agile organisations, with leaders and people capable of dealing with continuous change, disruption and the need to always be learning. It is however those that move beyond attempting to adopt a methodology or set of initiatives to entrenching this in their culture, that are likely to survive.

John Brodie is a Director at MAC Consulting who heads up their Leadership and Human Capital Centre of Excellence