Inculcating an 'innovation by design' culture in organizations
It’s time to stop “innovation theatre” and start innovating!
For innovation to happen by design, at scale, across the board and in an institutionalized way - organisations need to focus on culture, amongst many other aspects. We have all heard and read, thanks to the seminal article from the Harvard Business Review, that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Well, culture also eats innovation for breakfast. Leaders must consciously and assiduously build a culture of design-led-innovation, and manifest innovation by design.
Yes, culture is the key to organisations, for most outcomes. “Organisational culture is the unique social and psychological environment of an organisation that is built upon the underlying beliefs, values, attitudes, customs, written and unwritten rules, along with the practices, processes, structures, incentives, and people of an organisation.” Organizational culture affects the way people and groups interact with each other, with clients, and with stakeholders; and it influences how employees identify with their organization.
In summary: culture is shaped by what we believe, and its manifestation is “how things get done here.” How people behave is the measure and characterization of culture.
What are the beliefs and behaviours of a design-led -innovation culture? There are many, and while there is no formula or framework for building a design-led-innovation culture, it does not happen by accident. It is a long, considered, and calibrated and relentless journey.
Some attributes of a design-led innovation and culture worth noting are: curiosity, creativity, risk-taking, and collaboration as the foundation upon which exploration and experimentations occurs within the organisation; one where innovation places customers at the centre of the problem-solving; one where usefulness and desirability of an organisation’s offerings are not determined by the technological sophistication, but through the value addition (and hence value creation and capture) it brings to the customers and the business; one where an organisation has the direction and clarity and the means to engage with the world at large for co-innovating…i.e. they realize that what is “inside” is usually not enough; one where people are empowered and equipped to try stuff ( and even fail) and have the mental space and environment to do so. And finally, one where there is “innovation accounting” so innovations are tracked and measured, rewarded and celebrated.
Clearly, an innovation culture is not just only for start-ups, although they seem to be most seized of innovation for existential reasons. Several large organisations have successfully cultivated an innovative culture, by design. Organisations have been seen to undertake many programmes and initiatives for building a design-led-innovation culture - programmes that are top down as well as bottom up, directed as also free flowing, structural as well as behavioural in the focus….to get the needle to turn.
Organisations are also spending millions in building the design thinking DNA in their organizations- critical for innovation. Design thinking is having business folks solve business problems the way designers design. At the core of design thinking is empathy and an admission and humility that we do not know enough and that we must pause and reflect before jumping to solutions. It is a mindset to some, a process to others, a framework, and a way for human centred creative problem solving to all.
A design-led culture is built by investing and architecting the programme at the enterprise, business unit and the individual levels. It cannot be one or the other. The mistake most organisations make is by only investing at the individual level- through training. Without adequately thinking through organisational, structural, and business unit changes for reinforcing and perpetuating the culture, just sending people for training is not going to be enough.
Moreover, organizations have also realized that Innovation does not only happen within an organisation. Many times, it needs an external partner who can help inspire, discover or define opportunities i.e. through “open innovation,” i.e. by interacting and co-creating with the world at large. Open innovation has the potential to unlock hidden potential to find solutions for pressing problems through collaboration and shared knowledge. In open innovation, organisations embrace new partnerships that help them explore new pathways that go beyond traditional avenues. By collaborating and co-innovating with academia, start-ups, and think tanks, organisations can accelerate innovation and the culture of being always “on” and always open.
There is no right time to introduce design-led innovation and starting a conscious and considered journey towards greater innovation. The best time is now. And why it is important to start right away is because there is no learning without trying, and there is never progress without learning. Use design thinking for your journey towards organisational design thinking: have bias for action, be massively collaborative, try some experiments, know that you do not know enough, pilot, test, validate and then scale. In business, as in life, humility and listening have great payoffs. Time to benefit from it.