March 10, 2014
How To

Create a culture that supports, rather than sabotages, innovation

Innovation — the creation of something different and useful — is the lifeblood of business success. Now more than ever, organizations rely on innovation as the single-most promising strategy to growth. The most astute organizations are trying to stimulate innovation by building cultures that encourage it, but many find that this is easier said than done.

Where does innovation come from? In his book "The Rational Optimist," Matt Ridley tells us that Neanderthals, who had bigger brains than ours, barely invented any new tools in hundreds of thousands of years. What accounts for the explosion of culture and inventiveness, e.g. the creation of farms, cities, tools, processes and, in the more recent past, technology, is collective intelligence — the sum of interaction and exchange between individuals.

It is no surprise that innovation relies on the exchange of ideas that come from different sources, like a physician talking to a rocket scientist leading to camera-guided surgical procedures. On a smaller scale, almost every organization carries the seeds of innovation in the diversity of perspectives represented by different disciplines.

Developing new products and/or services that are necessary to remain viable can take years. In an effort to speed up the process and create products with a high probability of appealing to the marketplace, successful companies create multi-disciplinary teams of product designers, engineers, marketing and sales people.

Conceptually, this sounds like a great idea. But just bringing people together doesn't necessarily produce elegant outcomes. The obstacles can be significant as each group comes with its own set of values and the belief that its part of the process is the most valuable. Each group has its own language and assumptions, its own methods and procedures. Rarely are people inclined to patiently decode language, values and assumptions with others who are different.

It takes time to build trust and for newly formed groups to become productive. Innovation generally involves some level of risk. By definition, the outcome is unknown, which makes trust all the more essential. Sometimes a message is conveyed that mistakes or failures — even those that are the result of positive intentions — will have negative consequences, effectively dampening any enthusiasm for such pursuits. Furthermore, there are frequently more incentives for each group to meet its own measures of success than for the organization as a whole to meet a collective goal.

How can an organization create a culture that truly supports innovation?

Here are practices to follow:

  • Bring multi-disciplinary teams together to define their own collective common vision, goal or objective.

  • Provide facilitative leadership that is neutral and respected by all.

  • Allow time up-front for learning about one another's values, assumptions, practices and methodologies.

  • Build skills in constructive dialogue, decision making and conflict resolution.

  • Provide rewards and incentives for outcomes only the group as a whole can produce.

  • Reinforce that creativity and innovation require time, exploration and experimentation.

  • Create an environment that encourages learning from mistakes and failures.

Here are practices to avoid:

  • Expect a multi-disciplinary team to 'gel' instantly.

  • Impose a goal or method that clearly values one discipline over others.

  • Provide rewards for individuals or groups that outweigh and conflict with potential group rewards.

  • Discourage exploration and experimentation with unrealistic timelines.

  • Focus on failures resulting from positive efforts and intentions.

Dana Morris-Jones is principal of The Delphi Group Inc., an organizational development consultancy in Scarborough, and a member of the Association for Consulting Expertise. She can be reached at


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