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(Since Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast anyway) — Let Them Eat Cake!

Originally written May 2011. Revised January 2018.

I am a passionate evangelist for "management innovation." This term was popularized by American management expert Dr. Gary Hamel in his great Harvard Business Review article, "The Why, What, and How of Management Innovation." It refers to an approach to leadership that allows ingenuity efforts to succeed. Once leaders have re-envisioned their own roles (as the "stand-out" leaders in the IBM CEO study did), the journey of "innovation management" can begin. But without this as the starting place, that of management "innovating itself," efforts to foster inventiveness elsewhere in these organizations will likely fail. This is key ingredient #1.

Bowl with flour and broken egg in preparation for cookingKey ingredient #2 is that leaders need to be clear that creating an innovative organization is a journey one commits to; this is the heart of "kaizen," or continuous improvement. ("What Does 'Innovation' Mean") Isolated incidents of new initiatives (whether this is a process improvement, or a novel product or service) does not an “innovative organization” make. The genius of certain organizations, those that can rightly be called innovative, is that the conditions and processes to do this repeatedly have been standardized. (Langdon Morris, Permanent Innovation and Agile Innovation).

Numerous guidelines are readily available on how to make organizations more innovative. However, having an overarching mental model for the key components and how they relate to one another can be helpful. –The one I came up with happens to very much resemble the form of a two-layer cake!

 

The Bottom Layer: A Solid Foundation:

There are the basic, fundamental structures and processes that are necessary to the stability of any organization. Think of it as the bottom layer of the cake. Vision and missions should be well understood and aligned; legal and fiduciary structures must be in place; clear accountability and communications systems are needed, and so on.

Once in place, this basic foundation requires regular assessment and maintenance in order to ensure ongoing organizational and fiscal health.

This layer must be solidly in place before adding the next, which contains the structures and practices that foster ingenuity. However, even if one's organization is on shaky ground, just as the successes of kaizen clearly demonstrate, integrating some continuous improvement programs among staff may help guide the organization to more solid ground. Regardless of whether an organization is ready to go fully to the next level, smart leaders engage their employees by soliciting their problem-solving and improvement suggestions.

Top Layer: Innovation Processes: 

It is here that the structures and procedures specific to innovation are added and integrated into the organization, such as:

  • The continuous collection of and reward for ideas solicited from employees, customers and stakeholders
  • Formal vetting processes to determine which ideas to explore and which to shelve
  • Rapid-prototyping to test new ideas to ascertain quickly which ones should be developed
  • Pipelines for short, medium, and long-term projects, so that the organization has a mixed "portfolio" of experimental initiatives in order to diversify its investment and risk
  • Creating “Intra-preneur” programs that reward employees to spend a modest percentage of their time developing viable ideas that may benefit the organization
  • The implementation of systems such as Lean and Agile to improve efficiency, effectiveness, speed, collaboration, and learning cycles
  • Skunk works (independent "branches") and “Organizations within Organizations,” when the organizational structure or culture is not yet conducive to integrating innovative processes
  • Practices that encourage both formal and informal cross-functional collaboration

"Management innovation" practices (see opening paragraph):

  • Systems and metrics that reward managers for experimentation and taking some risk, and not just ROI
  • Open communications systems that increase transparency, facilitate cross-functional collaboration, and that can push some decision-making downward
  • Implementation of formal roles such as "innovation champions" and MBWA (Management by Walking Around) practices

And now, for the final element…Two-layer cake cake in process of being frosted

The Icing: Daily Operations Re-thought!!  

The icing or frosting covers and runs through the center of the two-layer cake, just as culture covers and permeates an entire organization. Yes, some people prefer their cake plain, with no icing. But in this model, frosting is not an option!

 

The icing, or culture, is the “special sauce” or "glue" of an organization that will make, or break, any initiative. In this case, innovation efforts.

 

As the saying goes, "Culture eats [even the best] strategy for breakfast."

What many leaders don't understand is that creative thinking is not just a switch that can be turned on upon request, and then off for the remainder. The creative lens is a more fluid way of looking at the world. It is the one that we were all born with — before we began suppressing it around adolescence because our peers thought it too "weird" to think and speak imaginatively. Conformity became the path to fitting in and finding acceptance. To compound this, convergent, inside-the-lines/box thinking is generally reinforced by our public-school systems, religious institutions, and workplaces.

So, it doesn't work to ask employees to "turn on" their best creative thinking at a brainstorming session, but to then spend most of their working hours staying within the lines of the accepted cultural norms and adhering to "how things are done," lest they be reprimanded in some way. This simply produces " cognitive dissonance" — not a safe environment that is conducive to original thinking.

 

It is no coincidence that the most innovative companies have cultures that are anything but staid. They are designed to encourage playful, divergent thinking. (Southwest, Google, Virgin Air, IDEO, etc.) Creative thinking is a core value and encouraged as a norm. Their approach is both clear to see, and effective.

In organizations committed to increasing innovation, teams should be rewarded for coming up with creative approaches to how everything is done, from:

  • Recruiting
  • On-boarding
  • How meetings are run
  • The design and delivery of training
  • Communications
  • How staff is rewarded for pushing through tough deadlines
  • Celebrations
  • And so on….

Creative, experimental approaches should be encouraged for all daily, "mundane" operations by those who have the inspiration and imagination to re-envision them. Think of it as creativity applied to designing the organizational culture.

 

(There are some great ideas for this in John Putzier's wonderful book, Get Weird: 101 Innovative Ways to Make Your Company a Great Place to Work.)

In closing…

When it comes down to it, most leaders are not prepared to do what is necessary to create innovative organizations. Their comfort zones are generally the top-down approaches to management which, then reinforced by the culture, allows them to retain full control and, they may think, "risk less." However, this system is antithetical to fostering cultures where divergent thinking can thrive. Such organizations may be "doing fine" at present time, but they will not be innovative or as successful as they might have been, and they certainly will be more vulnerable to waning competitiveness going forward.

However, for those who are committed to doing whatever it takes to lead and thrive into the future, the good news is that some great road maps have been created by those who have been part of the many success stories. Creative thinking is contagious. Once the systems that foster innovation are put in place, and the culture is designed to stimulate creativity, permanent innovation becomes possible — with benefits that keep on giving.

Build it, Bake it – And they will come!

 

Kowabunga! will be moving to www.ridingthewave.net very soon!  As many subscribers were dropped by the previous subscription service, please resubscribe on the new site so you don't miss any posts!
In the meantime — we're still looking for your ideas for blog posts and interactivity, so here is a repost on our contest, below.  Win Langdon Morris' great new book, The Innovation Master Plan or your own special interview on Kowabunga!

Dear readers, Boys in leaves

I hope that you have been gleaning some value and reading pleasure from this blog, as well as enjoying some of our fabulous photos!  We're off to a good start exploring different facets of creative thinking and how to cultivate it in organizations, and I'm pleased to see that we have readers from around the world!

With your help, I’d like to "take it up a notch” soon and make Kowabunga! more a more interactive and creative forum.  The timing of my invitation is appropriate, as my next post will be on collaboration!

You can either respond on the blog site comment section, or write me directly at adams at ridingthewave dot net.

  1. Please send me your ideas for posts, contests, interactivity, podcasts, interviews, videos… Whatever you can dream of… 
  2. Let me know if you’d be interested in writing a guest post or collaborating with me on a post or related project.

Keep in mind that if you post your ideas in the comments section for everyone to see, those may inspire other people's ideas — That's the beauty of brainstorming, or "what iffing."   

PRIZES!  In return for those who provide the most and best ideas*, I'm offering some added incentive:

  • One winner will receive Langdon Morris' new book, hot off the press and signed by the author:  The Innovation Master Plan.  You'll be invited to share a review, if you like.
  • Another grand prize: We'll create a post or fun podcast featuring YOU and your creative and innovative work and/or related topic of your choice.

I would like to think that we've only just begun with what Kowabunga!  can become, and that your support and creativity may play a role!

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Veronica Adams
Riding the Wave Training & Development
adams at ridingthewave dot net

 

 * Disclaimer: The contest judges offer no objective criteria whatsoever for what will be deemed the "best" ideas.  Just ones we think that we all might enjoy!  😉

Photo of book splayed open with colorful drawings of trees, and buildings, clouds, an airplane, charts, people, star and sun.  Depicting the many types of ideas that people think of.

Originally posted August 2011.  Revised January 2018.

A colleague told me he hadn’t realized that when I talk about innovation I am often referring to improvements in processes, workflows, and efficiency, in addition to new product and service developments. So, let me set the record straight.

According to The Oxford American Dictionary, innovation is defined as: n. Change, alteration, revolution, upheaval, transformation, metamorphosis, breakthrough; new measures, new methods, modernization, creativity, ingenuity, inspiration….Green tree sprout off of branch

Therefore, "change" and "new methods" can be something as modest as altering the steps in verifying data to ensure greater accuracy, or ordering a piece of equipment so that fewer people need to be involved. Minor “tweaks,” collectively, can be world changing. Toyota became the largest and “most efficient” car manufacturing company in the world not based on revolutionary, head-turning Tesla-like designs (although it has certainly has had breakthrough designs of its own). What Toyota has mastered is a whole other realm of innovation:

"… Small incremental innovations [have] snowballed over time into huge improvements in productivity, efficiency and output."  

 

Improving Processes — Keeping it Simple in the Spirit of "Kaizen"

It is important not to conflate an openness and commitment to improving processes with adopting formal process improvement systems such as Lean and Six Sigma. A future blog post will provide a high-level overview Lean and Six Sigma, as well as Agile. In short (while there is some interrelationship between them) these are disciplined, multi-step methodologies for revealing and eliminating: a) waste in time, energy, and resources (Lean); b) inconsistencies in production quality (Six Sigma), and c) for speeding up development and leaning cycles (Agile). The latter, Agile, has been primarily used in software development, but many believe its use would improve the outcomes and efficiency of most projects.

There are times when these frameworks utilize creative thinking, and at others, the intense drive for speed and exact measurement can stifle it. In order to maximize the benefits of divergent thinking, depending on the stage of the cycle within any one of these methodologies, process leaders must hold fast to a commitment to balance, and ensure there is sufficient time for the creative ideation and reflection process.

Toyota has honed each of these systems to a high art. But they are viewed only as tools within their overarching approach called "Kaizen,” which is Japanese for “change for the better” or “continuous improvement.” Kaizen itself is not a specific tool, but rather, it is a mindset or value system, and a "journey."

Colorful drawing of several ants working together to place a twig to bridge a gap.With the belief that everything can be improved and performed more efficiently, and that continuous improvement is everyone's business, just as the stand-out leaders in the IBM CEO study did, Toyota requests every one of its employees to help "identify problems and then develop and implement ideas to solve [them]." (My most recent information estimates all Toyota employees contribute an average of ten improvement suggestions per year, from line-workers, to administrative assistants.)

In the spirit of Kaizen, in this article, we are referring to improving processes in its simplest form. On any given day at our work, most of us have ideas pop into our heads for how things could be more efficient or effective. Innovation management expert Langdon Morris writes that “seeing things as they are and things as they could be” is the creative tension that is foundational to innovation.

Many American companies that have adopted Lean and Six Sigma tools have fallen short of achieving the results that their Japanese counterparts have. Some ascribe this to a failure to fully understand the art of kaizen and the balance between:

  • Applying the rigorous systems of Six Sigma, and Lean
  • With taking adequate time for divergent thinking and stepping back
  • With drawing creative continuous improvement ideas from the ingenious rank-and-file humans who come to work for them every day.

Unless leaders put processes in place for employees to share their ideas, and then to vet them and experiment with those that may be viable, rhetoric aside, they are not creating innovative workplaces. The cost of not implementing these is a tremendous loss of brainpower, opportunities, and financial and human resources. Regardless of what great employee benefit programs are offered, their organizations' rates of dissatisfaction and turnover will be higher than had they engaged the talents of their employees in continuous improvement.

Other Forms of Innovation:

Now that we've explored the over-arching concept of process improvement, let's look at some other viewpoints. Brownell Langdrum of Draw Success (www.DrawSuccess.com) supplemented her own list of types of innovation with those generated by a group of chief innovation officers from companies such as Google, Mattel, and Hewlett-Packard. A few of these are included below; some overlap, and some "hairs might be getting split." But it's an interesting prompt for thinking through the various areas where we can take our questions and wonder if there might be better ways… (In looking at her full document, you will find that some of the descriptions are quite original themselves.)

Improvements in internal operations:A phot of a round gold-framed item that looks like a compass, but has the word "Quality" toward the top, and the word "Productivity" toward the bottom.

  1. Efficiency Innovation delivers ways to improve efficiency and the speed of effectiveness. It can include internal systems and processes or ways to expedite the customer/client experience.
  2. Financial Innovation conveys ways to increase sales, reduce costs, improve tracking of expenses, and reduce accounts receivable, along with other ways of managing finances to enhance profitability. It also includes ideas to improve tax/audit compliance.
  3. Process Innovation encompasses the implementation of a new or significantly improved production or delivery method.
  4. Systems Innovations includes introducing a new infrastructure or system, which could produce new sectors, and induce major change across several areas of business.

Fireworks over a bridge at nightAnd now for the Flashier forms of Innovation:

  1. Breakthrough, disruptive or radical innovation: These involve launching entirely novel products or services.  Breakthrough innovations are rare because of the risk and uncertainty, but they can deliver tremendous rewards. They require large leaps of thought and a high risk tolerance.
  2. Business Model Innovation involves changing the way business is done, whether in terms of sales and distribution, marketing, pricing or any other core business strategy.
  3. Incremental Innovation is when one adds something extra to a product or service that the competition doesn't have or isn't doing. Or, when one makes something last longer, makes it more convenient, or faster.
  4. Marketing Innovation involves development of new marketing methods with improvements in product design or packaging, product promotion, communication or advertising, pricing or distribution.
  5. Product Innovation is the introduction of a good or service that is new or substantially improved, which may include improvements in functional characteristics, technical abilities, ease of use, or any other dimension.
  6. Service Innovation: Compared to goods or product innovation or process innovation, service innovation delivers ways to improve the delivery of a service or expertise and is both interactive and information-intensive.
  7. Technological Innovation may include coming up with new technologies to solve a problem or new uses for existing technologies. Solutions may be high-tech (i.e. computer systems) or low-tech (a better mouse trap).

 

In summary, when hearing or using the term “innovation,” be aware that it often refers to simple improvements in workflows and processes. Creating environments that challenge all employees to help lead continuous improvement can result in organizational benefits that go far beyond what any one mind could ever have imagined.   

Two intersecting ripples in placid blue water.

 

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