Culture, Process, and Tools
It’s easy to sit on a barstool where all three legs are the same length, and difficult to maintain balance if they are not. Similarly, when launching a corporate innovation program, you should look to balance these three fundamental components—culture, process, and tools. If any are deficient relative to the others, it will be much harder to achieve your desired outcomes for the program.
Culture is a always a huge topic of discussion, but relatively few actually have a good working model for its effects. So what is culture? Is it foosball tables, answering (or not) work emails at night and on weekends?
I’m drawn to MIT Professor Edgar Schein’s definition of organizational culture:
Culture is a way of working together toward common goals that have been followed so frequently and so successfully that people don’t even think about trying to do things another way. If a culture has formed, people will autonomously do what they need to do to be successful.
Culture is how the people of a place make decisions, based on pattern-matching those decisions that came before. In the context of an innovation program, evaluating your company’s culture might involve asking some targeted questions: how supportive is the shared decision-making process, the culture, for discussing new ideas? Are people territorial? Is the suggestion of a bad idea OK? How siloed is the organization? And perhaps most importantly, how do we communicate with each other? Are we open, collaborative, and transparent in our decision-making?
Process is in some ways the hardest thing to consider when discussing an organization’s innovation efforts. The culture, especially as a by-product of previously made decisions, is set and hard to influence in the short-term. And everyone’s comfortable looking at and integrating tools into their workflow. But process? This is the thing that requires work.
The other tricky thing about establishing process is that it’s a lot Mike Tyson’s quip: “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. Process becomes immediately, and continuously, influenced by both culture and tools. So while it’s important to establish rules for the program, particularly around how decisions are to be made, it’s equally important to recognize that you have to be nimble and ready to iterate on processes as your team encounters new challenges. Being too prescriptive about process can be as dangerous as having no process at all.
As an innovation toolset provider, we of course think the tools you choose to drive your innovation program are crucial to the overall likelihood of success. The narrow view of this fact manifests in features—does a particular tool have the features that we think are critical to our efforts? But to go a little deeper, I’d suggest you look as much at the tool’s, and tool-maker’s, point of view. Do you share the same point of view about innovation? This will ensure that as the tool evolves over time, you will always have a strong fitness with the tool. If a tool has many of the features that you want, but a different point of view about innovation or collaboration, generally, you may find that the space between you and your ideal tool turns into a chasm over time.
It’s also important to consider how a tool either echoes or cuts against your culture. If you’re open and collaborative, but the tool defaults towards being closed, or if you’re transparent in decision-making, but a tool puts up too many walls, you will find yourself in a constant state of battling the tool. So choose tools not by lists of features, but by thinking about the point of view and fitness with your culture. Features are easy; cultural considerations cut to the core of a tool’s usefulness within your organization.
Everything in Balance
At Kindling, we work with organizations of all types and varying sophistication with their approach to innovation. We’ve found a very strong correlation between the most successful among them and those that put a lot of consideration into the culture, processes, and tools they employ in their innovation efforts.
Those organizations that fail to consider, measure, and iterate on any of these will both fall behind their peers, and ultimately fall off the stool.