Corporate innovation culture – swimming against the current?

Corporate innovation culture can sound like a misnomer at times.  The numbers can be depressing – an estimated 70-90% of corporate innovation efforts fail; publications like the Wall Street Journal are filled with high profile missteps made by large corporations costing billions of dollars.

A comprehensive solution of innovation tools, processes, incentives, and technology can help avoid pitfalls and de-risk new ventures, but what about the company culture?  At times a company culture can seem like an immovable force; any attempt at change is met with swift and overwhelming resistance.  For most companies, this is par for the course.  Let’s face it, at most organizations, only a fraction of the people are incented to drive or even participate in change.  A large majority of the workers are assessed and measured on their ability to keep the company running “efficiently”.

And yet, in our work we have met adventurous groups of people that have managed to influence their company’s attitude toward innovation.  Whether by persuasion, coercion, or force, dedicated individuals or groups can make painstaking steps toward bringing about innovation in their companies.

Some companies are better at change than others.  Nokia has re-fashioned itself many times over the years from pulp, rubber, and cable to mobile phones; though it has been late to the game in terms of smartphones.  Other companies like 3M cultivate individuality and elevate the innovator to hero status.  Whatever path you choose, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Leverage the corporate culture.  Who gets the most respect in your organization – engineers, designers, marketers?  Seek them out, build a relationship and work with them on new projects.  Collaborating with the people that drive your organization will enable faster progress; use them as internal heavy influencers within your company.
  • Find a champion, build a coalition.  Your innovative efforts are doomed to fail unless you put diligent effort towards increasing cooperation from different parts of the company.  This means having the support of an upper-level executive.  Then adding to your coalition, one person at a time if necessary, until you’ve built a power base that’s strong enough to support innovation cycles regardless of volatility.
  • Communicate consistently and at all levels.  Establish a common definition of innovation and broadcast how the company is implementing initiatives.  Keep your executives informed about objectives and processes.  Celebrate your successes; talk about learning from your failures.
  • Go guerilla if you have too (but maintain impeccable professionalism).  On the other hand, sometimes it’s best to fly under the radar a bit.  Being in the spotlight requires keeping up appearances, justifying resources, having to compare against the core business.  Rather, some effort are best grown by staying incognito, gaining some traction before facing the criticism of the status quo.
  • Measure your progress.  It gives people something tangible to point to and work towards, even for something as ambiguous as innovation.  What percent of your group’s budget goes towards innovation?  How quickly do ideas pass from inception to field test?  How many concepts are flowing through the pipeline?

Success is never guaranteed but if we don’t think about culture and how it influences our innovation efforts failure could be just around the corner.


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