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(Since Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast anyway) — Let Them Eat Cake!
Posted on March 21, 2017 | Veronica Adams

(Revised 2012 post)
I am a passionate evangelist for innovating management.  This term, popularized by Gary Hamel, refers to helping organizational leaders to adapt the structures and systems throughout their organizations in order to empower all employees to bring their ideas, their creative problem-solving, and the full range of their talents to workplaces that are committed to excellence in accomplishing their missions. In other words, innovation can't really take hold as a way of operating until management innovates its way of operating in that organization.

As many know, isolated incidents of process improvement (incremental, or process innovation), or producing 1-2 successful cutting-edge products or services (disruptive innovation) does not mean that an organization is “innovative.”  The genius of certain companies is due to the fact that its leaders have found ways to standardize the conditions and processes to do this repeatedly. (Langdon Morris, Permanent Innovation and Agile Innovation).

There are numerous guidelines available on how to make organizations more innovative.  Having studied and pondered some of these over the years, I came up with a mental model for delineating the key components necessary for this change path. — And it happens to very much resemble the form of a two-layer cake!

The Bottom Layer: A Solid Foundation:

These are the basic, fundamental structures and processes necessary to the stability of any organization.  Vision and missions should be clear and aligned, legal and fiduciary structures must be in place, accountability and communications systems are required, and so on.  This basic foundation also necessitates some ongoing attention and maintenance in order for organizational and fiscal health to continue.

–However, even in troubled organizations, leaders who are wise solicit creative problem-solving ideas from staff on all levels on ways to improve various operating efficiencies.  This lays the foundation for implementing the structures and processes needed for continuous improvement (an indispensable form of innovative) and for fostering workplaces that are inclusive and engage employees.

Top Layer: Innovation Structures:

It is in this layer that specific structures and procedures are added by those organizations committed to maximizing resources, employee talents, and effectiveness in being agile and responsive to changing needs and opportunities in an exponentially complex world.

These include such things as efficient systems for:

  • The ongoing collection of ideas solicited from both inside and outside the organization. (Toyota implements an average of 10 ideas per year per employee toward continuous improvement.)
  • Vetting which ideas to explore and which to shelve.
  • Rapid-prototyping.
  • Pipelines for short, medium, and long-term products.
  • Creating “Intra-preneur” programs.
  • Agile, Lean, Kaizan, and Kanban systems that increase efficiency, speed, collaboration, and transparency.
  • Skunk works and “Organizations within Organizations.”
  • Silo slashing and increasing both formal and informal cross-functional collaboration.

Management innovation:

  • Metrics that reframe and leverage (what non-learning organizations automatically discount as) “failure” as learning.
  • Systems that reward managers for experimentation, and not just ROI.
  • Increased transparency and open communications.
  • Management approaches that focus on removing obstacles from promising initiatives, though innovation champions, innovation leaders, servant leadership, and MBWA (Management by Walking Around). Empowering employees and pushing decision-making down.

Before going on…

Leaders who are willing to relinquish some of the command-and-control approaches that are antithetical to innovation, and who venture down the pathway of building this top layer may meet with some success.  But just as the majority of change initiatives fail, most innovation efforts do as well. — Why?  It’s the “culture thing.”  And, it has to do with “cognitive dissonance”:

If culture were truly as nebulous and intangible as many would have us believe, Cultural Anthropology would never have become the important field that it is.  There would be nothing to observe in various communities around the world.  Similarly, the customs, routines, norms, practices, and management style are all outward manifestations of the underlying beliefs and values of organizational culture.

So, when encouraging employees to begin to apply experimental thinking in their project work, it makes no sense when everything else looks and feels the same day in and out: “operational drudgery” as usual.  Guardedness and skepticism will remain in tact as employees wonder when will it be “safe” to think out-of-the box, and when divergent thinking be chastised? In order to transform a culture into one that values out-of-the-box approaches (instead of negating, undermining, and swallowing up nascent ideas and efforts, as most do) – concerted effort also needs to be applied to devising creative approaches to otherwise mundane corporate functions in order to create a consistency of values.  Which brings us to…

The Icing: Daily Operations Re-thought!!

The icing or frosting covers and runs through the center of the entire two-layer cake, just as culture covers and permeates an entire organization.  The icing on an innovative cake is the “special sauce” that supports the paradigm shifts that support creative problem solving and out-of-the-box thinking.

It is no coincidence that the most innovative companies have cultures that are anything but staid, and are designed to encourage playful, divergent thinking. (Southwest, Google, Virgin Air, IDEO, etc.) Creative thinking is a core value and encouraged as a norm, and it shows – all over these cakes!  In organizations wanting to increase innovation as a practice, managers and teams should be rewarded for coming up with creative approaches to doing everything: from how on-boarding is done; to communications; to rewarding staff for pushing through tough deadlines; to designing and delivering training, celebrations, meetings; and so on…

In closing…

Not everyone is going to be on-board with the changes needed to create innovative organizations.  Most organizations will not be willing to do what is necessary.  Choices are being made everyday, generally through inaction, as far as who goes forward and who will be left behind, both on the individual and organizational levels.  The rewards of making a successful transformation are as clear as day, and well documented.  For those that choose inaction, the consequences will become increasingly clear and painful. 

For those who are committed to do what it takes to lead into the future, the good news is that out-of-the-box, creative thinking is contagious.  The rewards of happy customers, fully engaged employees, and mission accomplished then foster more of the same.


Build it, Bake it – And they will come! 

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