How to Build an Innovation Culture
Turning Your Team Culture Around
Bill Gates once said that, 'Microsoft is not about greed. It's about innovation and fairness.'
Whether or not the software behemoth has lived up to this credo, one thing is sure. This is not a statement about the mission of a company; it is a declaration of the cultural values of the business.
You can read all the books and hear all the lectures you want about the skills involved in leadership. Unless they're talking about establishing and maintaining cultures, they're often a waste of time.
A healthy culture produces identity and a sense of value within the team. Innovation culture promotes a commitment to new approaches that push the boundaries and open new opportunities for growth and influence.
Culture, not structure, is the key to engaging the future.
Studies have shown that it takes at least two to three years for an entrepreneurial leader to develop an innovation culture within his or her team.
Having worked hard to establish, or at least encourage, innovation culture it is vital that a leader remains vigilant. If you're not watchful and engaged, cultural entropy will set in.
In the world of physics, entropy describes the process by which any natural system, if left to itself, will eventually run out of energy. That is, unless energy is applied from outside the system, any organism or natural system will wind down and die.
In a similar way, cultural entropy can destroy an organisation. Unless there is constant reinforcement of a new culture, people will invariably revert to the dominant culture of their past, or to the culture within their wider environment, industry or sector.
Cultures do not growth systematically or in straight lines; they develop organically, through viral networks. Cultures grow or spread within an organisation by a process of contagion, in much the same way as do diseases.
When it comes to building innovative cultures, four important 'cultural carriers' must be in place.
Throughout history, new and innovative language groups have usurped older language groups for one reason: they have offered a better way of expressing powerful concepts and ideals.
Language provides the entire structure for human communication. Culture is redefined when people learn to communicate in new ways, expressing themselves via a different conceptual framework.
Psychologists talk much about the concept of gestalt. In simple terms, this refers to the brain's capacity to interpret new data on the basis of existing patterns. Over time, we each build up an internal picture of reality, which is based upon and reinforced by repeated experiences.
This perception of reality is heavily influenced by language, among other things.
If you want to produce a culture of innovation in your enterprise, you must work to impact thelanguage of the group. You need, for example, to constantly reinforce new thought patterns through carefully chosen words.
This begins with what I call corporate language - the terms we use to define the work we do.
A friend of mine was lunching with a group of high-level bankers during a break at a business conference. Being a guest from outside the banking sector, he wanted to better understand the industry. He asked each person around the table what were their individual responsibilities.
The last person in the chain gave a long-winded and somewhat confusing response. My friend, trying to get his head around banking jargon, said: ‘I don't really understand what you've said. Can anyone else help me with this?’
Every leader at the table held a top-tier banking position, yet none of them could shed any light on what their companion had said. In the end, the gentleman in question confessed: 'Actually, I don't understand my role either!'
It's little wonder our banking system has had such problems of late. How can we expect the banks to adequately regulate themselves, if they can't understand their own jargon?
Of course, the banking industry isn't alone in its use convoluted language.
Lawyers, for example, are often guilty of using 'legalese'. They employ complex language which, at times, seems intended not so much to reflect the intricacies of law as to protect ‘the priesthood’ of their professional.
They express themselves in sometimes needlessly convoluted language, to keep the uninitiated (their clients) out of the hallowed inner sanctum - and in a state of dependence on lawyers.
Convoluted language is a weak reinforcer of cultural values, because it is incapable of viral transmission.
Most corporations and civic authorities - and many smaller businesses - have developed a Mission Statement. Relatively few, however, have written a Culture Statement.
This is a summation, in a series of short, succinct and clear sentences, of the desired culture within the organisation. It is a reflection of what is considered good, normal and right within the group.
Community and religious organisations have used Culture Statements with good effect. The business world would do well to emulate them.
The second layer of language is, of course, personal language - the terms leaders use to build individuals within their teams.
What is dominant flavour of the language you use as leader - and does it reflect and reinforce the type of culture you're trying to build? Does it carry a tone of confidence or despair; of disingenuousness or authenticity; of affirmation or discouragement; of risk-taking or playing-it-safe?
Does your language and the internal dialogue of the team reflect sloppiness of thought? A culture in which constant swearing is the norm is a culture that encourages laziness on the mental level. Likewise, a tolerance of personal pejoratives presents an image of insecurity and defensiveness.
In some organisations, leaders try to address the problems of weak culture through political correctness. But the answerto pejorative terminologies is not to introduce more stringent regulations. The answer is to introduce a more positive culture.
People are ultimately discouraged from certain behaviours not by the threat of retribution, but by 'soft' social pressure - an awareness that certain forms of negative language are not tolerated as part of the informal culture.
After all, in society generally, good laws don’t draw attention to themselves. The best laws operate in the background, providing parameters for healthy behaviour without the need to badger people into compliance.
The third aspect of language that defines culture is perhaps more subtle and less easy to identify. Some would call it Body Language.
It is the unspoken yet nonetheless powerful communication of physical posture, facial expressions, eye movements and so on.
In psychology, 'anchoring' refers the way verbal messages are reinforced by strong, non-verbal signals. In any face-to-face conversation, your body language often speaks louder than your words. (Even in a phone call, the pitch of your voice and the regularity of your breathing convey messages.)
Without becoming paranoid about this, it's important for a leader to be aware of what his/her common mannerisms may be 'saying' to others.
It's difficult, for example, to motivate a team if, while your words speak of a great, shared destiny, your shoulders stoop, your eyes are downcast and your dress sense suggests that you don't own a mirror!
Does the reinforcement of culture really hang on such mundane things? Absolutely!
In primary school, I learned about John Simpson Kirkpatrick. Just about every Australian student of my vintage will have heard about Simpson - and not once, but every year as we marked what is known as ANZAC day.
On this April day, we remember the fallen warriors of the two world wars, marking the arrival of Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) forces at Gallipoli during World War I.
John was born in South Shields, England (near Newcastle) but spent time in his youth travelling around Australia. Along with thousands of fresh-faced young antipodeans, he landed at ANZAC Cove at 5 a.m. on the 25th of April, 1915.
He was mortally wounded in what became known as Shrapnel Gully, near the mouth of the Monash Valley, on the 19th of May 1915. He was just 22 years of age.
During the 24 days he spent at ANZAC Cove - many, of course, didn't last that long - he operated as a one-man rescue unit - technically, a stretcher-bearer. He purchased a donkey to help him in the work and together Simpson and his donkey are credited with saving the lives of perhaps hundreds of men.
Though he was twice recommended for the Victoria Cross and the Distinguished Conduct Medal, Simpson was never actually decorated for his actions. Yet he earned something far more precious - a prominent place in ANZAC folklore.
I don't know if Aussie children as still taught about Simpson and his donkey. But if they are, as were millions before them, it will be because this man reflected and reinforced so much of what Australians aspire to be. He embodied the desired culture.
Simpson was above all a true mate - someone who would do anything to help a fallen comrade. This is central to the Australian persona and a core attribute when it comes to our sense of cultural heritage and aspiration.
Whatever the enterprise you lead, this much is true: the people you elevate reflect the values you celebrate. And what you applaud will shape your team's aspirations.
Heroes always reflect and reinforce cultural values. What heroes do you celebrate in your group? Who do you ‘talk up’ - either from history, or in contemporary times, whether world famous or not?
Actually, there are heroes right before you - people who are doing extraordinary things in a very ordinary world.
Whom do you promote within the organisation? Are they elevated merely on the basis of metrics, performance targets and the like, or because they also carry the cultural DNA you’re trying to encourage?
Who do you bring in to inspire or train your team? Are they invited purely on the basis of their professional skills or because also carry values and traits you want within the culture of your group?
A few years ago, I was visiting my hometown of Melbourne for a keynote speaking engagement.
I was walking through the city with a friend when suddenly we heard the sound of a bugle. Cars pulled to the side of the busy road; pedestrians stopped in their tracks. Young and old stood silent as the bugler sounded The Last Post.
The date was November 11, Remembrance Day. As with ANZAC Day, this is not only a time for remembering the debt we owe to fallen warriors; by extension, it is also a time to reflect on the qualities that led them to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Personal tenacity, combined with a shared commitment to the defense of freedom and the overthrow of tyranny helped to impassion young men - they were mainly men - for a cause larger than themselves.
What is true of a nation is true of an organization. Whenever we take time to commemorate an important event, we inject new energy into our sense of culture and keep cultural entropy at bay.
What are the key markers in your team's calendar? What do those markers say about the culture you want to build and encourage?
Over years of speaking to leadership conferences worldwide, I've noted that so many events take people away from their partners and families. Often this is unavoidable. But few companies place as much emphasis - and spend as much money - on providing an annual workforce event for the entire family.
Most of our lives are spent outside of the office. A healthy professional culture recognizes this and affirms that family commitment is of value to the company - not least because it promotes psychological wellbeing.
When archeologists and anthropologists delve into the cultures of past tribes and societies, they investigate the technologies used. Tools reflect the values and the culture of a people group.
Your team uses certain tools. Do the tools help or hinder the creation of innovation culture?
Marshall McLuhan was right when he said: '[In the age of TV] the medium is become the message’. The technologies we use to communicate and promote our ideas reflect something about the products and services we offer.
If your communication tools are out of date - if, for example, you're not leveraging the power of social media - people may unconsciously assume that your ideas and services are also anachronistic.
Within your enterprise, your tools also reflect and reinforce team culture. Technology is changing so rapidly that it is basically impossible for us to keep up with the latest tools in any field.
Your computer is already out of date when you take it out of the store! (If, that is, you still bother with clunky technologies like personal computers.)
You won't build an innovation culture, however, if your overall approach to technology says, 'If it was good enough for my father; it's good enough for me.'
As a leader, you need to ensure that you have at least one technology maven on your core team; someone who enjoys gathering information on the latest tools simply for the pleasure of it.
A tech maven will become your walking database when it comes to technological questions - and, if you let them, they will make you look good.
Innovation culture is not the result of accidental or random processes. It must be actively encouraged, by leaders who see themselves as cultural architects. Language, heroes, events and technologies are all important to keeping cultural entropy at bay.