What does it take to build a culture of innovation?
No, it’s not a trick question; and yes, if you’ve already read our book then you may well be thinking along the right lines. But I have to admit to growing disquiet that innovation is being hijacked by ‘flagship innovation centres’ in the same way that we saw business culture succumbing to ball pools and table tennis just a few years ago.
Do you remember those heady years when business leaders looked to the success of high-tech/fast growth Silicon Valley companies and decided that fun was the name of the game? All of a sudden soulless cubicles were out, replaced by a mix of relaxation pods and sports areas. And whilst these changes worked for the few; for far too many they represented a cost with no reward as culture, employee engagement and idea generation remained stubbornly low.
What all these organisations failed to realise is that things don’t necessarily make for a positive culture any more than giving a child lots of toys won’t necessarily make them into a nice person. So why do pool tables help to deliver results in some instances? Simply because they act as a conduit, enabling people from different departments to get together, to talk freely and to share ideas. The magic isn’t in the table itself, rather it comes from creating the conditions which break down silos and encourage interaction.
It’s an important lesson to learn. Great organisational cultures, innovative organisational cultures arise simply because the leadership put people at the heart of the strategy. And here we are not just talking about your own people but also suppliers, customers, academics, researchers; in fact anyone who can add to the rich diversity of ideas out of which innovative ideas can grow.
So what’s wrong with flagship innovation centres? In themselves, nothing. In fact, by drawing together multiple organisations under one roof they do bring the potential for a cross-fertilisation of ideas. But that’s only going to succeed if the leadership in every one of those organisations recognises the value of putting people first. That means being prepared to engage and empower, to free people up to interact and to experiment, and to create the conditions in which people feel able to do so.
And yet, as I look at another flagship innovation centre announcement the talk is of facilities and infrastructure, of communication and transport links. There is a passing reference to skilled employees but no mention of culture or engagement or innovation leadership. I hope the centre delivers, I am concerned that it won’t. There are far too many businesses already out there which boast of innovation whilst simultaneously restricting intrapreneurship.
What does it take to build a culture of innovation? In truth there is no single right answer but if people aren’t at the heart of your plans then you’re fooling no one but yourself.