Cultural blocks to innovation

I recently observed a roundtable of consultants and executives discussing business innovation. They identified enablers and blockers according to the Innovation Value Chain, a sequential three-phase process – idea generation, idea conversion and idea diffusion. The enablers and blockers clustered into themes such as strategy, finance, innovation practices, innovation competence, physical space, leadership, people and culture.

The majority of blockers were about people and culture. Not entirely surprising.

Hansen and Birkinshaw, authors of the Innovation Value Chain, say that a key determinant of successful innovation is the strength of cross-unit networks i.e. collaboration or, put another way, breaking down silos.

To quote: ‘the occasional cross-functional brainstorming session won’t do the trick: It unfairly assumes that people who are unfamiliar with one another will be able to work together to generate ideas on demand. What’s needed is an ongoing dialogue and knowledge exchange between people from different units’.

Individual values provide an explanation of why even well planned innovation breaks down. Values are a set of deeply held beliefs that shape self-perception and perceptions of the world. We know that they affect an individual’s innovation orientation, from people who desire to keep things as they are and have always been, to people who desire to come up with completely new, radical ideas.

There are natural tensions rooted in Values that create natural blocks to collaboration and as such innovation to flow.

When a CEO asks the question – how do we improve innovation?

Typical responses....hire expertise from Silicon Valley, deliver innovation training, contract innovation consultants, set up skunk works. All these may work, but none will really generate progress until you answer the people and culture questions.

Who do we have that:

- is viscerally driven to produce ideas?

- is deeply satisfied by using ideas to deliver results?

- takes great pride by making the new processes normal and compliant?

Our values research tells us that these are very different people who often do not know how to co-exist for innovation to succeed. The language of values unlocks dialogue to enable 'cross-unit functioning' because people get to know who their colleagues are at a human level, and learn how needs to be honoured for what they bring to the innovation game. If you have few idea producers and none in key, influential roles – then that is probably the structural cause of not doing innovation well - which no amount of training, skunk works, ideation software will fix.

Mapping individual values is a straightforward process that reveals answers to these questions and puts executives in a position to make evidenced based decisions ‘human’.

Here is a story that sheds more light on ‘Innovation – why people get in the way’.

Next up will be common misunderstandings and generalizations about motivation and values that lead to misplaced advice and actions intended to improve engagement and productivity. These misunderstandings and generalizations can be quickly overcome by measuring what makes your people tick, thus knowing specifically what to do to motivate desired behaviours.


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