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Creating an innovation culture is not complex. It’s just bloody difficult.

After all, innovation is just a fancy term for ‘collective’ or ‘group’ problem-solving.

But, organisations that do this effectively have had to create an environment that catalyses the right emotions in their teams.

Most corporate innovation strategies fall short of expectations, because of organisational structures which passively and actively disincentivise teams.

Hierarchies, financial goals and short-term time horizons are just some examples of structures that stop teams from experimenting. The result is that centralised ‘safe’ decision-making becomes the norm (you can never be fired for buying IBM) rather than encouraging as many people as possible across the organisation to experiment.

What ‘must’ leadership teams do to create an innovation culture?

Daily training and practise.

It is that simple.

“To excel at anything requires a commitment to constant and deliberate practise. This is true whether you want to play concert piano or run a marathon or build an innovative organisation. Leaders who consistently, visibly and deliberately improve their own innovation skills will, over time, see their organisation’s innovation culture improve.”

There is no other quick fix I’m aware of. Delegating to consultants will not create an innovation culture. Sending your colleagues on team building courses with Lego sets will not create an innovation culture.

Innovation cultures are created by the visible actions of the leadership team, which are then copied by their directs, and then theirs and so it continues to cascade throughout the organisation.

The rub of course, is that learning to do anything worthwhile requires grit and determination with years of dedicated focus and effort if you truly want to succeed.

But, if you can do that and over time impress on your directs to make a similar commitment, you will see the impact. Eventually you will start to see the innovation culture grow…exponentially.

Incremental Linear Improvements bring Exponential Results

I want to accentuate two points.

Firstly, the majority of leaders who decide to commit to a daily innovation routine, will quit within a matter of weeks.

Secondly, the advantage for leaders who keep going is exponential, because of the network effect.

The first point is, I think, self-explanatory.

All of us have had the experience of starting something new and then quitting soon after, often with a sense of relief.

Perhaps it was a diet programme, or the violin lessons, or an in-car language course which you failed to sustain. For me, I felt a burden was lifted from my shoulders when I stopped trying to become fluent in German.

There are many reasons why we stop practising, but I think training to be innovative is a particularly difficult challenge as you can go for months without any evidence of progress.

To the second point, if you do persevere the daily practise may make you a better innovator, but the direct impact on the organisation may well be minuscule.

However, the indirect impact, as you generate a network of followers, across your whole organisation, who also incrementally improve is, what drives the exponential benefits.

How do you train to innovate?

I’d suggest, just like you’d train for a marathon, that if you spend at least 30 minutes every day, increasing your knowledge about innovation and experimenting with new ideas and trying new things, that over time you’d start to see firstly a change in how you act and behave, which then opens up the opportunity for your colleagues to similarly adjust how they behave.

Here are just a few ideas that could make a difference

  1. Regularly read inspirational books about innovation (e.g. Sprint by Jake Knapp or Exponential Organisations by Salim Ismail).

  2. Sign up to daily mailers to keep up to date with whats happening in the start-up community (e.g. CBInsights)

  3. Join innovation clubs and communities (e.g. Abundance 360)

  4. Make small changes to how you work every day to test new ideas. e.g. change meeting times from 60 minutes to 20 minutes / use lean principles for management meetings / invite the youngest team members to the most senior board level discussions / run your meetings as stand-ups)

  5. Run field visits to companies that are perceived as being innovative

  6. Go to events such as Singularity University Africa

  7. Go social and try to use platforms like facebook@work to engage with all your staff, every day. (The Engaged Leader is a great short read to understand the benefits ’socially-savvy’ leaders generate).

  8. Run ’structured’ innovation sessions at venues like The Equinox.

These are just a few examples to get you thinking.

Innovation is simple in theory, hard in practice and well worth the effort!

Building or enhancing your innovation culture is not complicated.

It just requires the belief that by doing a little bit of innovation every day, you will start to enjoy failing fast and giving your teams more autonomy and adjusting metrics to incentivise learning not milestones and you’ll feel safer betting on more significant ideas which can be tested quickly and cheaply and perhaps hierarchies start to collapse as social communication increases and emotional intelligence improves, which leads to new types of staff being employed or even no staff being employed as crowdsourcing and AI solutions start to offer incredible opportunities to scale and so on and so on.

Finally – A note on purpose

Daily, determined practise requires grit and dedication.

It’s an emotional rollercoaster of self-doubt, frustration, lost opportunities, many failures and few successes.

The more passionate you are about achieving your goal, the easier it is to develop the mental toughness needed to persevere.

That’s why leaders that focus on a deeper underlying purpose than chasing profit, continually outperform the competition (click link for more on this).

The stronger the purpose, the more it emotionally resonates with staff and customers and investors.

The more it resonates, the easier it is to create supporters and advocates.

Jeff Bezos passionately wanted to create a platform where anyone could buy anything online.

If that was his ying, his yang is a deep-seated fear that Day 2 organisations will face a ‘slow and painful death’. (His office block is named Day 1).

If Bezos was not driven by his ‘fear’ of becoming irrelevant and ‘desire’ to improve consumers lives, Amazon would not be where it is today.

As a leader the more fearful you are about your organisations future and the more passionate you are about helping your customers and society in general, the easier it will be to find the grit to build an innovation machine.

Good Luck



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