What Really Drives Innovation?

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What Really Drives Innovation?

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A little while ago I wrote about the parable of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant, in which six different people sense a different part of the elephant, each therefore believing the elephant to be very different in appearance.

It’s often this way with innovation, with various practitioners thinking their part of the jigsaw is the main bit, whether it’s judging innovation by R&D expenditure, new patents or even new ideas.

A recent paper set out to compare these various explanations to see what really does lie behind radical innovation.  Interestingly, they found that none of the above was really behind successful innovation.  Instead, the key driver was that traditional catchall – the company culture.

Culture again?

Of course, you might suggest that culture is such a fuzzy catch all that it can easily be blamed for pretty much anything, but the authors suggest that it is something inherently quantifiable.

They managed to identify a number of cultural constants that appear in innovative companies from around the world.  They break this down into a set of three attitudes and three practices.

Three attitudes that drive innovation

  1. A focus on the future – a long-term focus was said to be a key trait of innovative organizations.  If you focus as much on the customer of tomorrow as you do on the customer of today, then you may be doing ok.  I should stress that whilst the authors believe this is the most important aspect, it is also the rarest to find, with the average CEO spending just 3 percent of their time on this.
  2. Willingness to cannibalize – I wrote yesterday about the difficulties organizations face in changing their current practices, especially if those have been successful in the past.  It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, that avoiding this ‘success trap’ is key to being innovative.
  3. Accepting risk – risk and tolerance for failure are common attributes assigned to innovative organizations, so this one is perhaps not much of a surprise.

So how does these manifest themselves in sound, every day practices?

Three practices of innovative organizations

  1. Reward innovation – the study found that the most innovative companies often incentivized innovation more than the laggards.  Of course, this shouldn’t be thought of in purely financial terms, with all manner of non-financial incentives available.
  2. Strong champions – a second key behavior seemed to be the existence of influential and gregarious champions who will help to push through innovations.  It should be noted that such people were found in all organizations, but in the innovative ones, they had clout and power.
  3. Internal autonomy – there is a growing appreciation for autonomy inside our organizations, but most still run in a manner more akin to a dictatorship.  The innovative organizations in the study tended to promote internal competition and autonomy however.

Of course, I suspect that none of this is really all that new, which reminds us how much harder it is to do something as opposed to merely knowing something.

As the post yesterday illustrated, even in industries where innovation and adaptation are infinitely logical, it remains something that is very much the preserve of the minority.

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agile, culture, innovation, leadership

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