Which comes first..the System or the Culture?

Hello Pioneers, I’d like to share with you a tale of two companies.

At the start....

Company A:  We’d like to do more innovation.  But we have to get our culture right first. We’re going to bring in some creative speakers to get our employees ‘fired up.’  We might even start asking them for their ideas and we’re going to start an incentive program where we pay them for every idea they give us.  After we get everyone thinking the right way and being more innovative, then we’ll be in a place to do a ‘real’ innovation system.

Company B:  We’d like to do more innovation.  But we’re the sort of people that have to see it to believe in it.  Rather than try to create a culture of innovation through big bang events, we want to grow it from within.  We want to start it in one group and do an innovation project using a system.  Then show that it’s successful.  And then add another group, and another.  Then when we start to gain momentum inside, we’ll move to get the whole company on board.  We believe that by DOING innovation, we’ll also be seeding a CULTURE of innovation.

I’ve spoken to both these company types time and time again. And I’ve seen both scenarios play out.

At the end...

Company A:  We thought those events would help.  Everyone was so energized when we did them.  But when we measured the real impact, we didn’t make a dent in the culture.  People didn’t feel more innovative. They didn’t know what to do to be more innovative.  In fact, the incentive system backfired on us because they gave us ideas on all sorts of things but they were the kinds of things we’d never do.  And because we didn’t follow through with them they didn’t believe we really meant it when we said we wanted them to be innovative.

Company B:  It took longer than we thought.  And it was more work than we thought.  And we learned more than we thought.  But in the end, people learned by doing.  And we got the double bonus of getting real business results while getting them to shift their mindset.  People feel more optimistic now.  They anticipate problems and solve them fast.  I think it’s because they did innovation ‘on the hard stuff’ and got their hands dirty, so now the idea of using innovation on everything is second nature.  Sure, we had to change some of the ways we work to support them - but we have sustained momentum and you can feel it.

Many companies believe that innovation systems or ‘process’ and a culture of innovation are two separate and distinct things.  They create separate teams to support them.  Separate methods to measure them.  In effect, they create more silos than they started with.

But innovation systems and culture - to do them well - should be treated as two halves of the same whole.  One affects the other.  And, in the case of innovation, one should proceed the other.

So next time you’re thinking of how to get started building a culture of innovation, stop thinking speakers and start thinking systems.

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