Are You Future-Friendly?

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The news is full of stories about Canada's innovation gap. The Public Policy Forum (PPF) has published a report that blames Canada's weak innovation and productivity growth on our relative inability to "connect the dots."

A recent editorial in our national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, cites the PPF's report: (this) is not so much a matter of any supposed lack of inventiveness, or of deficient economic policies, as of a characteristically Canadian difficulty in making contacts and establishing practical collaborations among innovators and investors."

On The National, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC) flagship news program, guest host Amanda Lang called innovation "a missing component in Canada's economic recovery."

A panelist on the program, Professor Roger Martin, a leading thinker on the subject, described innovation as "something missing that the customer would love to have." Another panelist, Kunal Gupta, Chief Executive Officer of Polar Mobile, defined innovation as "taking a solution to market and having customers adopt it."

I think both definitions, probably limited by the sound-bite reality of TV talk, miss the basic driving force of innovation — the pure joy of creating something new!

The remedies to the innovation crisis?

Some say fix education. Others say fix government policy and taxation. They are to blame. Still others cite lack of cross-fertilization — our businesses need to cluster more like they do in Silicon Valley.

All of these solutions can make a contribution to the innovation gap, no question. But nothing undermines creativity and innovation faster than bad culture.

All of the education, policy, taxation and proximity solutions will fail if there is not an organizational culture that supports creative thinking.

CRITICISM AND COMPLAINT

"The way I see things at many companies is there are one or two people originating and the rest are sitting in a semicircle, critiquing." –Charlotte Beers Former Chairwoman and CEO Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide

A common cause of the failure to innovate, no matter where you are located in the world, is the conversations that dominate organizational culture.

Organizations where criticism and complaining are the predominant forms of dialogue are doomed. Invention is an endangered species when people are free to complain and criticize but are not required to suggest alternatives.

Unfettered criticism and complaint produce only one thing: corporate soul-loss. They signal that optimism has been overcome by anger; that the spirit of enterprise has succumbed to cynicism.

The cause? Bad management.

Instead of addressing the organizational culture and productivity problems quickly, and as they emerge, they are neglected or mishandled. As a result, cultural problems become chronic.

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SOLUTIONS

If you are struggling to bring innovation into your organization, here are ten things that you can do to create a culture that is future-friendly:

  1. Make Innovation A Mission
    People respond to a mission with meaning. If you want to light the creative fire, you must be passionate about innovation. Identify clear objectives and plans that support innovation. Lead the charge to the future by demonstrating your commitment to building a culture that is fuelled by great ideas rather than by whining and complaining.
  2. Think Present and Future
    Often, managers are driven by quarterly results only. They cannot see beyond the tyranny of the quarter because they have their heads down, trying to deliver the plan. Incent your managers to operate in the productivity zone of the present and to think about the future, where innovation resides. Include innovation in your quarterly and yearly goals.
  3. Invest and Reward
    If you value invention, you need to invest in it. Most people deliver what they are paid to deliver. Providing people, time and development dollars for R&D and product development incent creativity. Make sure innovative thinking, behaviors, processes and products are recognized and rewarded.
  4. Address Barriers
    Every organization has its politics. In dysfunctional organizations, politics and turf present a significant barrier to change and innovation. If you want innovation to thrive, knock down the barriers that prevent it from occurring. That may ruffle some feathers but you must be prepared to eliminate silos and turf.
  5. Demand Engagement, Accept Failures
    In many organizations, twenty per cent of the workforce does eighty per cent of the work. That is a recipe for resentment from those pulling the plough. It also guarantees underperformance from the organization as a whole. You cannot settle for less than full engagement from the people you pay to work for you. And, if you're afraid of conflict you need to toughen up. Going out of business because you couldn't get innovative enough to compete in a rapidly changing marketplace is in nobody's interest.

    At the same time, a new relationship must be struck with the failed experiments. Rather than retreat as a result of them, learn from them. Sometimes the failures are more important than getting it right. Failure allows us to review our basic assumptions and improve our methods. Fail better!

  6. Be Curious
    Curiosity is an expression of a natural hunger for knowledge and is a prerequisite of invention. This is the disposition of those people and organizations committed to learning and growth. Walt Disney, one of the greatest creative forces of the 20th century acknowledged the importance of curiosity in fueling the growth of the Disney brand:

    "Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths."

  7. Search for Inspiration
    Inspiration is the energy source of organizational spirit. Many leaders sit around hoping that it will show up. You could be waiting forever. Send out search parties for inspiration — both within the company and outside it. Don't be afraid to go off-course. Sometimes new ideas are lurking in the least likely places. Author Jack London says it best, "Don't loaf and invite inspiration. Light out after it with a club."
  8. Foster Dialogue
    Generative dialogue is an agent of innovation. When people are facilitated to explore and what they are most passionate about in providing value to stakeholders, new ideas are given a landing strip. Make sure you have guidelines and experienced facilitation that keeps the conversation positive. A bad attitude can kill creative thinking.
  9. Network
    Sometimes you just need to get out of the office and look at what other people are doing. Who do you admire for their innovative practices? How are they fostering innovation in their workplaces? How can you learn more about them and what they are doing? Networking can provide a means of exchanging knowledge, ideas and expertise that fuels new thinking.
  10. Create Fun
    Fun is a great incubator of innovation because it can lead to play, and who knows where that will end!? We take our work so seriously sometimes. Perhaps the antidote to the status quo is permission to have fun. Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque de Soleil, recognizes that work without fun is hard labor:

    "Business is difficult. But it could be approached two ways: Seriously, or with the same way you're doing your job, with entertainment aspect, with pleasure, with fun. And we decided to try to make it as fun that we do our creativity."

CONCLUSION

If innovation is required for a sustainable economy, we need to become very good at creating the right conditions for it to thrive. Work must be done on our educational, investment, taxation and governance models if we are to prosper in a fast-changing marketplace.

Posted on May 1, 2012 .