What makes for an innovative working culture?

Big idea

A ‘culture of innovation’; an ambition that resonates with many leaders, particularly those undergoing transformational change within their organisation.

So, what are the perceived ingredients of an innovative culture and why is it such an important area for businesses to explore and nurture?

Chicken or Egg…

‘‘Culture is the net effect of shared behaviours, and therefore adopting innovative behaviours must come first. You change the culture by becoming more innovative — not the other way around.”

Rob Shelton, MD, PwC US

[/av_testimonials] On one side of the debate in a strategy & business article, Shelton describes a culture of innovation as ‘one that will encourage employees to take risks that lead to breakthrough products.’ Whilst it’s fair to say that a customer-focussed approach is key it’s important to not discount other areas of business that have the potential for innovative thinking and action. Wunker’s 2015 article emphasises the importance of mapping out these potential ‘innovation arenas’:

“By highlighting the different arenas in which employees can be involved with innovation, companies can help employees add value in areas where they have deep knowledge and a desire to get involved.”

Think big – actually small

It’s not just the big ideas that make a difference, more often than not the smallest of changes can have huge impact.

Deval’s Customer Think article sums it up nicely:

“It has often proved a better strategy to try and think of the optimising tweak rather than the game-changing ‘big idea’, even in companies which we see as the quintessential ‘big idea generators’.”

James Deval

Collaboration is King (or Queen) – ‘innovation is a team sport’

It may come as no surprise to hear that in all of this ‘culture business’ collaboration plays a key role in delivering innovation success. Those of you familiar with our work at Maier will know of our track record in establishing effective collaborative working practices across complex organisations (with great innovation, naturally). However, a recent study by Nielsen suggests that collaboration is but a pipe dream for many organisations due to ‘a striking lack of diversity among the people contributing ideas’.

The study showed that ‘teams of six or more people generated a substantially larger number of unique concept alternatives than teams with fewer people.’ Not exactly rocket science when it’s put that way but why aren’t we considering how you branch out with more boldness and risk taking to really capitalise on the diverse and rich talent across our businesses? No excuses really.

Changing mindsets – ‘the only places you see uncreative people are graveyards’

Mark Brown, Chief Executive of the Dolphin Index – an organisation which helps businesses create innovative workplaces – emphasises the importance of breaking down the misconception that only some people have the ability to be creative. In a recent article he suggests that by making creativity and innovation a core value and part of everyone’s job description, you’re one step closer to shifting a mindset and reinforcing how creativity can be applied to the operational as well as the ‘bigger picture’.

It’s all very well and good introducing a value, but how can you provide the tools to make it accessible? 

Wunder references Autodesk as a great example of an organisation who use innovation workshops to show employees how to ‘create business pitches that highlight the value of their ideas and demonstrate why Autodesk is uniquely positioned to implement the solutions’. A neat way of combining the rhetoric with a good dose of practical reality and application.

Freedom and responsibility – The Netflix Culture

The Netflix slide deck that surprised even its originators in going viral, with viewing rates over 15 million, is another fabulous example of how values link to culture, ambition and innovative day-to-day practices.

“Instead of a culture of blind process adherence we have a culture of creativity and self-discipline, freedom and responsibility”.

With great freedom

Image Source: Peter Cauton – juangreatleap.com

We’ve been referencing it in many different ways recently to inspire and revolutionise Executive teams’ thinking and aspirations. We tend to not actually use all 124 slides – attention spans you know!!

Brain teasers

As far as British summers go it might have been a slow start, but things have definitely started to heat up and at Maier we’re putting every effort into extending the summer vibes. While we’re hanging onto the sunglasses for as long as possible we are also keenly focusing on the next few busy months as the ‘holiday season’ comes to an end and the mad dash to Christmas begins.

Having wound down, it’s definitely now time to wind back up so what can we do to keep energy levels high and our brains performing at full potential? Perhaps most importantly, how can you as leaders help your teams take on the post summer slump challenge?

 “Thanks to research on human behaviour, we know what it takes for the average person’s brain to perform at its best, cognitively and emotionally…These new insights suggest that simple tweaks in leaders’ communication and behaviour can potentially create a much more productive atmosphere for any team”

Caroline Webb, McKinsey Quarterly Feb 2016McKinsey article

Here comes the science bit…

The more we understand how the brain functions the more we’re able to positively shift behaviours in ourselves and our teams…. for example:

Avoiding ‘information overload’ and ‘leaving by example

Ever heard of automatic and deliberate brain systems? In a nutshell, ‘the automatic system is great at executing plans but not so good at making them. The deliberate system is inefficient for carrying out plans but excels at making them’ (Social Psychology and Human Nature, Roy F. Beumeister). When we’re overtired or stretched thin the brain’s automatic system can begin to execute plans without thinking and that’s where mistakes can happen. Sound familiar?

Solution:

“If leaders can encourage people to go offline when doing their most important work, as well as taking more frequent breaks, they’ll see an uptick in productivity, innovation, and morale” (McKinsey)

Whilst it may sound too good to be true research says otherwise and, as leaders, a few small changes to your own daily routine could make all the difference. For example, try role modelling behaviours or ‘leaving by example’ – show that you’re switching off, make a point of leaving your desk, set a timer to ensure you take time out.

“It’s become a collective thing in the office now. And everyone’s decided that breaks are a legitimate use of time because we get so much more done afterward.” (McKinsey)

Even the smallest of insights into how our brains work can potentially have a huge impact on productivity, so perhaps think about how you can apply some of the science to the day-to-day and you never know, it might just pay off.

Tapping into ‘discovery mode’

We’ve all had times where a business problem can knock you off course or leave you feeling flat and demotivated. When thinking for example about delivering bad news  it’s key to reflect on not just the what but the how – it’s genuinely what can make all the difference. Yet we still get so caught up in the content of the message that we neglect the delivery don’t we?

InBusiness sums it up nicely: ‘The more we understand what is happening in the brain, the more we can make adjustments that have real productivity gains’.

Ultimately by creating a positive frame for difficult tasks or discussions you’re more likely to get to a solution quickly. In a recent interview, Caroline Webb, author of ‘How to have a good day’ discusses the impact that ‘discovery mode’ can have with regards to decision making:

‘…if you’re dealing with a really tough discussion topic, you don’t have to be soft about it, but you can get people to think more clearly and, indeed, yourself more clearly if you first ask, “What’s our ideal outcome here? And what’s our first step towards that?”

‘Competence and purpose are inherently rewarding for the brain. If you can get the brain to focus more on the rewards than the threats in the situation, then you’ll get to clearer thinking’.

Caroline Webb, author of How to Have a Good Day

Simply put, listing the positives and focussing on the ideal outcome can make all the difference between a team in defence mode vs. discovery mode. It’s about looking at the other side of the same coin.

The Kaleidoscope Effect

When working with top teams from different backgrounds and sectors, often at different stages in their corporate life-cycles, you might naturally expect to be focusing on a number of very different issues, specific and unique to each team. But, as we’ve learned over the years, this isn’t necessarily the case.

In fact, while recently delivering a series of strategic Executive team events (‘custom-made’ for each client of course – that is the Maier way after all) we began to notice an emerging pattern. It seems that when it comes to the C-suite, problems are often not made for sharing. With HOT (honesty, openness and trust) being one of our markers, what stood out during the sessions was that even the most gifted and enlightened of Execs still feel the need to hive off functional issues to be dealt with later behind the proverbial ‘closed doors’, often with minimal input from colleagues.

What may seem mundane and trivial on the surface can prove to be something of a chronic distraction –  more often than not these departmental conundrums have a much wider impact than we realise. With meeting agendas already bursting at the seams and top teams having to work at hyper-speed to stay ahead of complex change curves, it’s easy to understand why Exec members don’t always bring problems to the board table. And let’s not forget, for most of us ‘going public’ with problems, even when not of our making but certainly within our remit, often takes guts and a good dash of bravery.

Team-powered problem solving

The big message here is ‘you don’t have to do it all on your own’, in fact, it’s better if you don’t!

“Tricky problems must be shaped before they can be solved. To start that process, and stimulate novel thinking, leaders should look through multiple lenses.”

Mckinsey and Company 2013

The value of ‘team-powered problem solving’ is in the diversity of approaches it brings to unravelling difficult issues. The ‘what-ifs’ become ‘so-whats’ because the combined efforts of a team inevitably generate more options and ideas than any single individual, no matter how talented or experienced, ever could. A great example of this was during a recent event we facilitated where an Exec member happened to share a problem she’d been having with a particular team of hers as part of a HOT development session. The collective input and ideas from everyone else in the Exec team proved invaluable, not only in terms of offering varying perspectives but also in confirming their support. By the end of the session a plan of action had been drawn up and wheels already set in motion.

Then there’s the collective learning and shared support to add into the equation – solutions might be simple but that doesn’t always make them easy to implement and knowing you have a team behind you, all invested in your success, makes any challenge more manageable.

This approach isn’t just for the ‘here and now’ – similar tactics  can be used when looking ahead, in avoiding anticipated problems and identifying potential ‘bumps in the road’. To find out more, contact us.

Inspiring spaces 

On the subject of problem solving, a change of scene can be hugely beneficial in providing the right environment for open and honest conversation, along with increasing productivity levels and simply getting the creative juices flowing.

Over the past 20 years we’ve had the privilege of working in some truly amazing spaces, but our standout venue so far this Summer has to be the Turner Contemporary in Margate.  It provided the perfect setting for this Executive group to reflect, to take time out in thinking that bit more creatively around what’s front of mind and enjoy exploring some new possibilities.

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