Culture of Innovation: Vectors, Barriers, & Risks| By |Travis Barker

Building a culture of innovation is fickle. It is neither obvious nor deterministic (following a straight path). Neither is the process of innovation immediately embraced or recognized as valuable in the environments in which the ideas are generated. Instead, innovations are usually resisted and only later recognized as valuable (often after competitors take advantage of the missed opportunity).

The path of discovery often limits the opportunity to explore other paths as resources are committed and momentum gains speed. Innovation and corporate systems design often follows a path that can be compared to a decision tree. Competing paths are not always illuminated and other paths & opportunities are missed as one option is chosen over that of another. Even when some level of illumination exists it may not be enough to respond adaptively or with a larger systems understanding of the situation and opportunities available. The path most often traveled may lead to the wrong and unintended destinations.

Where one person envisions a new path or idea another person, or corporation, sees a waste of resources (at best) or misalignment with the values espoused by the corporate culture (at worst). Either perspectives (or rationalizations) may obscure the realization of a novel and improved solution without even realizing it.

The challenge for each innovative visionary is how to best champion these new improvements and thereby overcome the often social, political, and economic barriers that surface?

Hierarchies often establish the premise that wisdom generated from above has more value than that generated from below. Challenging this often held belief are leadership models that emphasize team development or agile models that emphasize generating insights, and identifying opportunities to improve performance, from all levels.

Both approaches recognize that wisdom is more often generated in and at the moment the problem is created than from a viewpoint outside the system. Yet both are difficult to systematically and consistently implement due to corporate values that re-prioritize chain of command, efficiency, cost savings, and information skimming. A culture of innovation is needed.

Consider the following examples:

  1. Project “W” schedule has several critical tasks left. The risk of two different critical chains departing from schedule has been identified by ignored.
  2. Project “T” requirements are only described in broad generic terms. The risk of unclear requirements has been identified earlier but not resolved in time to keep up the project’s momentum.
  3. Project “I” schedule and roles have only been described in broad generic terms. The risk of these unclear items on the project schedule and quality has been identified earlier but not resolved in time to adhere to the project’s schedule.
  4. Project “B” requirements and roles have not been formalized with a project charter. The project scope has then expanded during the past two quarters, with the third quarter facing an almost complete stall of the project. The risk of working with unclear requirements and roles has been identified earlier with the first intervention producing some improvements. Subsequent evaluations discover the result of the one-time intervention was not sustained, as the project drifted back into the challenge of scarce resources and commitment.
  5. Project “P” requirements were established and quickly changed as the sociopolitical landscape was assessed and the weak support for the project was confirmed. Best practices and standards from within the corporation were identified to reassert momentum but declined. The project goals essentially vanished into thin air as the office attempted to keep up a semblance of best practices while recognizing their application continued to be inconsistent.

What is considered a unique process innovation from one perspective was actually viewed as standardized evidence-based practice from another perspective. The solutions proposed were only innovative in these scenarios because they were yet to be standardized practices. Although the proposals actually included multiple components they can be simplified to the following for each scenario:

  1. Innovative Solution “W”: Respond proactively
  2. Innovative Solution “T”: Maintain vision
  3. Innovative Solution “I”: Maintain cohesion
  4. Innovative Solution “B”: Maintain Focus
  5. Innovative Solution “P”: Standardize Existing Evidence-Based Practices

Innovation includes both improvements in technology and processes. Often iterative in nature, innovation often builds upon earlier discoveries and lessons but struggles with the leap of faith necessary to depart from earlier paths of reasoning. Previous commitments limit the corporation’s ability to identify, evaluate, and course correct when missteps occur.

Previous commitments can stall corporate attempts to change course, set up a culture of innovation, and thus interfere with the pursuing incremental improvements. The ability to recognize opportunities for innovation, and to identify problems that require novel solutions, requires the following abilities:

  • Recognize problems that need to be solved
  • Recognize possible solutions to the problem identified
  • Test possible solutions until the best answer is discovered
  • Objectively evaluate the performance of each solution
  • Challenge existing assumptions and commitments

A commitment to building these culture of innovation competencies is only the first step. Deploying these competencies requires the commitment of leadership to cultivating the best solutions instead of the easiest ones. The path of least resistance is often selected for its ease of implementation where corporations should be instead selecting solutions based on their best systemic fit.

What is your company’s path to building its:

  • Revenue or business model,
  • New product or services,
  • Protocol or guidelines

Who identifies what discoveries were missed? Who is responsible for taking the lead on discovering lessons and opportunities lost? Building your culture of innovation? And identifying the consequences of the company’s present course?

Share your comments below.

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