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The importance of culture and people in innovation

Being extremely interested in everything about innovation, innovation programs, innovation methods and innovation culture, I look for resources on the subject on an almost daily basis. Having worked with the practical side of innovation in organisations, I know that there are so many aspects to this that sometimes, it seems like an overwhelming task to explain the concept of innovation, make an overview of innovation methods and try to make it clear, what it takes to make innovation happen in real life. However, one of the key elements to influence your innovation effort I find is the company culture and the people that make up your organisation.

Innovation culture, mindset and capability

As with many strategic initiatives, I believe that one of the most important aspects to remember when working with innovation is the innovation capability in organisations. With this, I do not mean innovation competences as such, but the employee mindset that enables and allows innovation to take place in organisations. Mostly, this requires a company culture with an open mindset that allows failure as part of a learning journey in the organisation itself.

In a recent article, Braden Kelley, innovation keynote speaker and change management specialist, talks about ”building an infinite innovation infrastructure” — a foundation for the innovation work, which I believe is essential (see my article on the subject here). The elements of this innovation infrastructure, according to Kelley, is:

  1. Working with senior leadership (and board of directors) to establish a shared understanding of innovation.
  2. Securing commitment from senior leadership for support of innovation.
  3. Getting funding for innovation experiments.
  4. Creating an innovation vision to set the agreed parameters for your innovation efforts.
  5. Creating an innovation strategy that links to corporate strategy
  6. Create innovation goals and metrics to create targets for success and a way to measure towards the goals.

By building this innovation infrastructure, Kelley’s main point is that you move away from the organisation looking at innovation as a project to innovation being a proces and a capability built to develop the company.

Slow vs. fast

An important factor to consider and discuss strategically is how you want to divide your innovation efforts in the organisation. You have two options: working to improve what you are already doing today (doing things better) and working to define and create the future of the company (doing things differently). Jonathan Løw, serial entrepreneur, author and speaker on innovation, works with a concept called ”slow innovation”. In one of his recent articles in Mandag Morgen ”Lad tvivlen komme jeres innovation til gode” (in Danish), he talks about slow innovation being a great alternative to only looking at innovation in terms of trends here and now. Slow innovation is about spotting patterns — in for example customer behavior and markets — patterns which are not transforming the way we approach things here and now, but may slowly change society. As an example, Jonathan points to driverless vehicles, which slowly and radically will change, among others, job markets and business models.

The key concept of ”slow innovation”, according to Jonathan, is continuous doubt. With slow innovation, you are not looking at challenges, which are at the top of the list of the company now, but rather addressing challenges, which may affect the company and its organisation in a few or several years.

I think Jonathan Løw has an important point — that companies need to look to the future as well as focusing on the present issues at hand. The challenge, in this case, is to agree on this and act according to this agreement everywhere in the organisation — to allocate ressources and not just focus on short-term budget cycles.

The people factor

As is evident, the people factor in innovation is a key to succeeding with your innovation efforts. It’s about people in the organisation as well as people outside of the organisation. Being curious about your key stakeholders, your customers, each other and each other’s challenges is necessary to open up for innovation and successful innovation initiatives that will translate into processes and tool boxes — and ultimately enable the organisation to develop the company in unison.

But curiosity is not just there — it needs to be nurtured and allowed, embedded in the organisation — and talked about. Only then can the curiosity and creativity that follows translate to value for the company. Michael Hvisdos and Janet Gerhard have written the very interesting article ”Hiring for Curiosity, the Overlooked Key to Business Innovation” published on Recruiter.com, pointing to different ways curiosity can be supported in organisations:

  1. Flexibility in the way we work.
  2. Providing guided judgment to put boundaries in place where employees get the freedom to exercise own judgment and creativity.
  3. Empowering employees to own and grow their own ideas.
  4. Letting employees lead teams and give them credit for their achievements.
  5. Give employees time and resources to explore new ideas.
  6. Recognize employees for ideas and accomplishments — in public.

Altogether, working proactively with the human aspect of innovation and making active decisions on what and how we foster innovation in organisations, can open up to new capabilities, active decision-making in terms of short- and long-term innovation initiatives — and essentially increase success with innovation.

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Nerdy and passionate about strategic and cross-organisational business development and innovation. Equipped with a somewhat bad sense of humor.

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Lene Lindstrøm Olsen

Lene Lindstrøm Olsen

Nerdy and passionate about strategic and cross-organisational business development and innovation. Equipped with a somewhat bad sense of humor.

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