Innovation Starts with Culture

James McDonough blog sizeInnovate or die. Publications like Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Inc. and Fortune, regularly report on this daunting reality facing all organizations. As constantly changing markets, technological innovations, and global competition challenge organizations with new problems and opportunities, innovative responses offer the best chance for survival. So can you tell employees to be innovative, make it a job requirement, and force it to happen? Not likely. Innovation is not the same as a job task with a 1-2-3 “How To” manual. But innovation does not require “magic.” Recent research indicates a specific organizational culture invites innovation. Here is what I have learned.

Entrepreneurialism is linked closely to innovation. Contemplate individuals operating their own business elsewhere they are “all in”; they live, eat, and breathe their businesses. They are fully committed to achieving meaningful results. Imagine having an organization full of such passionate employees! Larger organizations can inspire employees to contribute voluntarily their greatest work efforts, just as an entrepreneur would for his or her own business. “Intrapreneurism” describes this ideal scenario.

Stimulating intrapreneurism requires team spirit and a psychological safety net around failure as a result of risk taking. Employees need to feel free to try something new and not fear punishment for failure. Obviously, there must be some parameters, but employees who unduly fear failure will avoid the risk-taking that fosters innovation. Employees attached to diverse teams with supportive interactions and healthy dialog create an ideal innovation ecosystem.

Assess your organization’s innovation-readiness by reviewing these questions:

  • Think about your organization’s history and “institutional memory” around risk taking and failures. How does this history affect the present?
  • Innovative employees are not always welcomed. Are intrapreneurs supported or considered “loose cannons” and micro-managed?
  • Consider the consequences employees face when they take calculated risks and fail. What is the risk tolerance level of organizational leadership toward intrapreneurs?
  • What systems exist to nurture risk taking that increases successful innovations?
  • Observe teamwork in your workplace. Are diverse team members encouraged to speak up and participate?

A series of articles in the journal “Performance Improvement” provides insight on how culture encourages employees to perform at higher levels. Written by David E. Wile, author of “Why Doers Do”, the articles outline the complex set of forces at work. He asserts that organizational culture is defined largely by management and leadership, and drills down to define specific attributes. Wile gives specific, actionable guidance on how to improve prospects for high performing employees to thrive. His work nicely supplements the research around innovation, intrapreneurism, team spirit, and risk taking. It’s all about culture.

If you seek a boost to innovation at your organization, a bit of reading is a good place to start. Feel free to contact me anytime at 800.884.1328 or jmcdonough@msec.org to discuss your research needs or for help with using the MSEC Library.