Innovation: Am I building on sand or a solid foundation?

Written by Thabo Ramphore (topic: innovation)

With innovation being at the top of just about every organisation’s agenda, building a culture in which team members can exchange ideas, and then implement best (and fastest) processes to get to market-ready solutions, is more important than ever. There’s a saying that goes “you are the average of the five people you spend most of your time with”. Inevitably, you start picking up their habits (good and bad), motivations, and behaviour, and so, over time these people influence your personality. This is often the point that most organisations miss – they overlook organisational culture when trying to implement new strategies.  

Building a solid foundation 

Innovation is commonly misunderstood, as it is mostly associated with technology or an assortment of new solutions. The truth is all these things are the product of innovation being applied well. Applying innovation well requires a strong foundation. Imagine trying to build a house on a foundation of sand, it wouldn’t be able to withstand any types of storms that are thrown at it. The same goes for driving a culture of innovation. All efforts will be in vain unless one has a solid foundation because the proverbial storms are inevitable. 

But what exactly is the key to building a culture of innovation in your organisation? Well, the important thing to remember is that it won’t be a single action. It’s fundamentally a combination of things that include leadership, structure, and talent.

Leadership in tune with the company’s DNA 

People who know the organisation well and understand how it works are key to strategically steering it. Their approach sets the norms and values for the broader team. Their role is not to monitor what people do and be ready to punish them for “wrong” actions – this inhibits innovation and often fosters a culture of fear. Instead, good leadership is about understanding the organisational landscape and assisting the team to navigate it. Innovation is not about buzzwords or looking the part, it must be purposeful. It’s therefore critical that those in charge of driving innovation efforts understand the organisation’s problems and challenges, politics, and its people. Good leadership is being in-tune with the company’s DNA and gradually working on changing it for the better. 

Structures that breed versatility and birth innovation 

Many organisations claim to have a flat structure, but what exactly does this mean? A flat structure implies that everyone within the organisation or area can interact and collaborate irrespective of title. In fact, titles don’t exist. Rather, it’s their roles that matter, and these continuously change according to the nature of the work being done. 

Now, as we’ve said, innovation is about more than just the creation of solutions, it’s a way of work. The way in which a team is structured ultimately determines overall morale and the quality of their delivery. There is no perfect recipe for how to achieve this but what’s important is that everyone creates and adopts a set of key principles. Examples of these could be that meetings are not longer than the agreed time, or even the introduction of 15-minute stand-ups for quick (and punchy) project sessions. Don’t feel too discouraged at the beginning because flat structures at times feel disjointed and messy. The key is to keep at it and iterate on it. It’ll take a while to undo years of conditioning.

Flat structures are important in driving a culture of innovation because everybody has a say in how things get done, not just in theory, but in practice. This way of organising often unearths talent that previously went unnoticed, as individuals are encouraged to contribute in various forms, depending on the task at hand. Freedom breeds versatility, and versatility births innovation.

The talent that can drive change and raise the bar 

It’s key to understand the organisation’s desired state with regards to building a culture of innovation. This makes finding the right fit, simpler. Once you’ve found the right talent – knowledgeable, imaginative, persistent, and bold – it’s important to allow for the culture in which they work to emerge, with a set of principles that have been applied of course. It’s critical that this talent is nurtured, and for leaders to exercise patience because innovation is a change journey. And with change comes resistance. Not everyone in the organisation will embrace your efforts because you’re disrupting the comfort zone. Be prepared for the individuals who will defend the status quo with everything they’ve got. They’ll perhaps be your biggest hurdle.

By no means is the combination above exhaustive. There are several other things that are needed to drive a culture of innovation. The above will simply assist in establishing a solid foundation from which to start. Foundation is critical, it doesn’t matter how great the blueprint looks. Before you initiate or embark on an innovation journey ask yourself this: Am I building on sand or a solid foundation?

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