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Let Them Eat Cake!
Posted on May 17, 2011 | Veronica Adams

A couple of weeks ago, I delivered a training session on some of the
Raw ingredientsingredients that are necessary in order for organizational cultures to become more innovative.  The stand-out leaders in the 2010 IBM CEO report recommend some high-level management approaches for fostering innovation, such as the need for managers to create cultures in which questioning of the status quo is welcomed along with calculated risk-taking, and where creative thinking is encouraged at every level of the organization.  

This all sounds great to me, but exactly how do managers go about putting all this into place?  As most of us know, management by mere decree alone doesn’t generally work.  And, even with the best of strategic intentions on the part of leaders, as the saying goes, “Culture eats strategic plans for breakfast.”  So, how does one go about making the changes needed to cultivate productive, innovative thinking throughout an organization in a systematic, self-perpetuating fashion?   

– And that’s what we’re talking about: creating cultures of ongoing innovation.  Producing a successful innovative product or service once does not make a company innovative.  The ability to do that repeatedly is what makes them innovative. “The genius of companies like Apple, Cisco, and Toyota… is that their leaders seem to have found a way to standardize the process of innovation.”  (Langdon Morris, InnovationLabs)

In the next few posts, I will pass along some of the research I have gathered on HOW TO create an organizational culture with the structures and processes and spirit that standardizes innovation as a way of operating, and that allows businesses to grow market-share and nonprofits to accomplish their missions more effectively. 

Cocoanut cake But first, I will share the model or metaphor that I believe is helpful in envisioning and differentiating between the basic components necessary for innovative culture to exist – that of a three-layer cake! 

The Bottom Layer: Organizational Development 101:  These are the basic, fundamental structures and processes that are necessary for any fairly stable, functional organization with semi-aligned vision, mission, accountability structures, management training, etc.  These require ongoing maintenance and “tweaking” in order for some level of organizational health and stability to exist.  Without these basic pieces in place, not much will flourish for long, let alone innovation.

–However, even in a troubled organization, wise senior managers will solicit the creative thinking and ideas of his/her staff on ways to get basic operating systems and structures working more efficiently.  Then, in the process of rebuilding the organization’s foundation, the way is being paved for a culture in which employee input, creative problem-solving, and innovative thinking can become the norm. 

Top Layer: Key Structures for Innovative Culture:  This is the layer within which the  additional structures needed for innovation are put in place, such as:

  • Shared agreements on what innovation should look like within a particular organization.
  • Efficient systems for the ongoing collection of a range of ideas solicited from everywhere both inside and outside the organization.
  • Low-cost prototyping systems for rapidly vetting ideas and determining which should be explored and which shelved.
  • Reward systems for experimentation that reframes what has typically been called "failure" as learning instead; etc. 

And lastly –

The Icing: Daily Operations Re-thought!!  The icing is the “fun” or Mad Hatter cake tilted "Fun-Ovator" stuff.   It entails continually experimenting with creative ways to run daily operations in more interesting and creative ways, which will result in producing an ongoing spirit of experimentation, “play,” and creative thinking.  This includes reconsidering things such as:
how meetings are run; how recruiting and hiring and job descriptions are done; being more creative with celebrations and incentive and reward programs; and so on.  


The icing really helps to shift culture so that creative and innovative thinking become the “norm.”  The HR departments of Southwest Airlines, Google, Virgin America and other innovative companies intentionally describe their cultures as “fun” and seek employees who are excited by the idea of jumping in their “sandboxes" of ongoing experimentation.  


Subsequent posts on some of the great recommendations I've gathered for creating the canvass needed for innovation to flourish in organizations won’t deal much with the bottom layer of the cake, because anyone who has studied management or organizational development, either in school or in the field knows these basics.  However, as we look at the structures and processes that support innovative thinking, it will become apparent that these bear a striking resemblance to what many of us learned (at least in school) were management best practices! 







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