Before you start to read this article, take a break and make yourself a cup of tea. No, not by pushing buttons on a machine; make a proper cuppa and watch as the flavour and colour slowly seep out from tea bag or loose leaves into the boiling water until every last drop has been transformed from plain H2O into the world’s favourite drink.
Then as you sip, reflect on what you actually did to create such a perfect brew. Yes you bought the tea and yes you decided to drink the tea and how strong it should be but in truth it was the harmonious combination of the water and tea leaves which did all the hard work; all you did was create the conditions which enabled the transformation to take place.
Now let your mind drift onwards, into working the same magic with your organisation and enabling it to take hold of next generation competitive advantage; in short how you can instil a culture of innovation. And you can learn most of what you need to know from simply observing your cup of tea.
Let us start with the way in which the flavour of the tea permeates throughout the drink, joining it together in a harmonious whole which works on every level. Now imagine a cuppa which is watery thin on top and strong as old boots underneath. Not good? No, well just as tea works best when the flavour is constant, so an innovation culture only truly works when it has been spread throughout the organisation. I call this innovation permeation, the way in which innovation needs a holistic approach, where innovation is visible and touchable in every part of the organisation.
Driving innovation isn’t about getting a group of individuals together and telling them to innovate whilst leaving the rest of the business wallowing in old ways, or roadblocked by outdated systems, policies and procedures. Neither is it about tying everyone up in overcooked stage gate processes or focussing on a dolphins index! Innovation isn’t rocket science so don’t over complicate it. Don’t get me wrong, driving innovation needs some structure, strategy and process but that’s not where the focus should be.
“Innovation is a by-product of being exceptional”
Innovation permeation only happens when everyone and every process is infused with the essence of innovation, of doing things differently, better. But how do you create the conditions for innovation permeation? We’re back to that cup of tea again. Just as you devised the strategy, you created the conditions but then left the ingredients to get on with doing what they do best, so the job of the CEO and senior leadership team is in creating the conditions in which innovation can flourish within the organisation. This means creating an environment in which innovation is clearly communicated and understood (organisation-wide) and linked to the core values, purpose and strategy of the company, then focussing on the things that enable people to contribute in the right way.
This doesn’t mean that senior leaders have to actively demonstrate innovation focussed behaviour; it doesn’t even mean that they have to personally drive innovation throughout the organisation. What it does mean is they have to shape the culture. On a practical level it means finding ways to demonstrate that they are genuinely behind the move to a culture of innovation, sponsoring middle management and empowering them to create an environment which encourages innovation permeation.
Only once middle management has embraced the value of innovation and is empowered and inspired to drive it, do things differently, to ‘change the game’ can the culture permeate the entire organisation. They are the ones who will work on the processes and people, to extract innovation focussed behaviour and to encourage individuals to step away from their comfort zone. They are also the ones who can provide one of the biggest incentives and rewards; that of recognising contributions and achievements along the way.
The trick is to create ‘an amazing place to work’; one which encourages fun, purpose (both personal and organisational), creativity and at the same time enables employees to derive value from their contribution to the innovation agenda. After all, it’s people who innovate for organisations not the organisations themselves. Yes we’ve all had excruciatingly bad cups of tea, we’ve all come across rule bound organisations in which initiative is quashed and the status quo is rife. But creating the right conditions and empowering people to do what they do best, to be exceptional can transform an organisation and enable it to take full advantage of the innovation revolution, driving competitive advantage, amazing customer experiences and ultimately, growth!
Cris Beswick is an author, speaker and strategic advisor on innovation. After over a decade as a successful entrepreneur he is now one of the UK’s foremost thinkers on innovation.
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