Enabling a culture of innovation

Why is innovation culture important?

In a previous post I threw out some thinking about design thinking and how you might think beyond it, depending on your own context and the problem space you find yourself in. But, if you are trying to build new products, experiences or services, or addressing complex challenges, how can you increase the opportunity for success?

There are really three routes in terms of delivering something new:

  1. You have an internal design/innovation team, which you can use through your normal business-as-usual work

  2. You don’t have an internal design/innovation team, and need to engage someone externally

  3. You don’t have an internal design/innovation team, but you want to build internal innovation capability

If your situation is (a), you are probably well set up, and have the culture and resources to be successful. No need to read on.

If your situation is (b) you probably need to hire a reputable design/innovation firm or agency to work with you to help achieve your goals. There are some amazing organisations in close proximity to you. You don’t need to look for huge, international names - there’s someone near you who is well experienced in your context that you can work with. Search them out.

If your answer is (c) you probably need to build design/innovation culture and capability. Here are some things you might consider.

An image from our Thing from the Future workshop in 2018, courtesy of Experience Week.  Photo: Folk Yeah

An image from our Thing from the Future workshop in 2018, courtesy of Experience Week. Photo: Folk Yeah

How to drive innovation culture

Invest in your people.

This will take time and energy and you will see success over months and years. Be prepared for the long haul. Don't think this happens overnight, no matter what the diagram, design-led innovation is a messy, emergent process.

Don’t regard innovation as a separate department

But, acknowledge innovation (creating something new and novel) isn’t for everyone. There are champions in your business that show natural ability, but things also need to be developed and delivered and maintained. Maybe consider Simon Wardley’s Pioneers, Settlers and Town Planners model to think about ways that different types of people can be part of delivering innovation within your business. Before this you might want to audit all the different ways your organisation is creating self-harm (eg. solving the same problems in different ways in your business, or replicating projects). 

Don’t send some people on a Design Thinking Bootcamp for a day and think this will solve your problems.

This is capability-building theatre. Although these offers are well packaged, and seem to minimise the time your staff are taken out of the business and not working, these things often don’t align to learning pedagogy, unless you…

Create a programme of learning through reflective practice.

Using a coaching model, alongside a live project is much more likely to achieve successful outcomes and actually enable people to learn. Here people engage in experiential learning alongside an expert (preferably a designer if you are doing Design Thinking, Service Design or similar) who have the opportunity to (a) learn design and innovation skills as well as (b) putting them into practice and (c) reflecting on what works and how they might change their approaches. By deriving value from this, people will learn new skills, tools and techniques.

You still need to be prepared to work with a professional design firm. You may need the craft of user experience, graphic design, software development or any other number of professional skills to create a well-executed product.

Create a safe space for people.

Great team work is built on trust and this needs to be shared between team members and throughout the business. The ability to fail and learn, share thoughts and feelings openly and experiment to build confidence all require trust, good facilitation and support.

Set principles on expected behaviours and start to align these within the organisation.

There’s nothing more discouraging than a broader team questioning the relevance or approach that people may be taking. Culture is emergent, but you can take steps to support desired attributes along the way.

People need mandate to be successful.

They need to own a process and see results. This means the opportunity to make things and do things that create risk. This risk needs to be managed, but it shouldn’t go through boards of bureaucracy for approval. Give people enough room to make things happen, and enough governance not to be intrusive.

Be inclusive.

Hold the space for diverse people to work together. The world is changing, value is derived in new ways beyond screens. Making something easier that your mum did for you when you lived at home shouldn't be the goal. Diverse, inclusive teams bring different ideas and lived experiences. Be brave and be at the forefront of something truly innovative.

Don't skimp on understanding people.

It's tempting to think a two-week innovation sprint will create the cut through you need. Sprints can be good to deal with a well-defined problems, but often organisations aren't in that space. They need to figure out what they need to do.

Don't make an excuse that you don't have time for research. If you can't afford a couple of months to deeply understand your customers and competitive landscape, you're in the wrong mindset. Spending money and time on high-quality fieldwork may create one insight that saves or creates 10x the initial monetary investment. 

Sometimes stopping something is more innovative than starting it.

You don't have to have a fancy environment, designer furniture, thousands of dollars of post-it notes and a massive budget. You can innovate frugally and make simple changes to an existing environment, a team's work tools and how they work. Things like whiteboards are useful, great digital tools are desirable and make things easier - but the truth is you can do design-led innovation with pen and paper. What you need is the right attitude, people and approach, an open-mind and trust.

Now go and create it for yourself.

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