Innovation culture is one of those terms that’s hard to define – poll 10 people on the street and we’d likely get 10 different interpretations. Yet we tend to know it when we see it.

I often find myself working with companies that, in the past, have tried a generic “open suggestion box” approach to innovation: Create an ideas portal, let people post ideas spontaneously and see if anything interesting comes up. The outcome of this approach is remarkably consistent: No one bothers to do anything with the ideas. The result? A disillusioned workforce, where a culture of skepticism has settled in.

What defines culture? Behaviors. I posted as much to Twitter:

Much of my work involves establishing a plan for re-energizing employees. Here, I outline the characteristics and behavior of an organization that help me to evaluate its innovation culture and maturity. Four key characteristics determine an organization’s innovation culture and within those characteristics, 25 behaviors drive innovation success. If you’d like to assess your own organization’s innovation culture against those behaviors, read on for details about our diagnostic survey.

1. Leadership

Leaders have a dramatic ripple effect on innovation throughout an organization.

Any discussion about an organization’s culture must start with its executives at all levels – c-suite, senior, and mid-level. The plans they make, the actions they take, the clarity of their approaches...these are all cues to employees about what matters.

For organizations that value collaboration and understand the tremendous asset they have in their own workforce, the actions executives take throughout the organization are key to motivating employees. Without leadership's positive behaviors, innovation becomes the province of only the well-connected and individual “superheroes”.

Key leadership areas that affect collaborative innovation success:

  • Clarity of purpose
  • Commitment to initiatives
  • Openness to diverse opinions

Of the 25 behaviors that impact innovation success (see below), seven fall under the leadership category.

2. Awareness

Awareness is the process of establishing with employees how important they are in the innovation process.

Meetings, phone calls, presentations. client visits, project work, deadlines… The daily pace of work demands attention and focus. Collaborative innovation needs to find a place in this busy and cluttered environment and, in my experience, there’s definitely capacity for employees to participate because I see it all the time. But employees need to know about the process and the importance of their role.

If someone were to ask a randomly selected employee in your organization what they know about your innovation program, what would they say? Do they know it exists, how it works, what results it's delivered?

Four of the 25 behaviors that impact innovation success fall under the awareness category.

3. Employee Engagement

Engagement makes employees' creativity and insights available to the innovation program.

When I kick off a consulting engagement with clients, I highlight that innovation programs are people-driven efforts. Which that sounds rather shopworn, in an overused "social business, empowered employees" sense, I make the observation to draw a contrast with other software-supported initiatives, like accounts receivable (A/R) processing, for instance. 

In collaborative innovation, the key inputs are the ideas, the perspectives, the knowledge, and the judgment of employees. The willingness to provide these precious assets depends on how confident employees feel that:

  • It's accepted to participate
  • Their contributions will be taken seriously
  • Their participation will be a positive experience, whatever the outcome

Five of the 25 behaviors that impact innovation success fall under the employee engagement category.

4. Innovation Governance

Innovation governance is the process of turning ideas into action.

As I noted at the outset, a classic failure in corporate innovation programs is the unattended idea portal. A site where employees post ideas but nothing else happens becomes an idea graveyard that kills the credibility and utility of an innovation program.

Successful companies, those that generate results year after year, do things differently. They approach innovation as a broader process that spans innovation needs, ideation, assessment, selection, and development. I've heard that sort of rigor described as ham-handed red tape that strangles innovation. Not at all! The real threat is the absence of any plan for moving ideas into innovations that can be iterated and experimented with, and scaled when they're ready. Governance ensures that innovation isn't a random draw from the deck, but something that’s planned and sought.

With a solid plan for innovation governance, organizations:

  • Understand how they will address ideas generated by employees
  • Ensure innovation doesn't fall through the gaps
  • Create bases for analyzing performance and identifying fixes where needed

Nine of the 25 behaviors that impact innovation success fall under the innovation governance category.

Evaluate your organization's innovation culture

In its 2014 report on the Most Innovative Companies, Boston Consulting Group found the following:

Successful innovators, both strong and breakthrough, work hard to make sure that the value of innovation is reflected in their corporate cultures and that they are organized to move new ideas forward. Innovation is recognized and rewarded at these companies.

And it’s a message worth repeating: The value of innovation is reflected in an organization’s corporate culture.

The four characteristics of collaborative innovation culture I’ve outlined above represent 25 different behaviors that drive success or failure. To help you assess your organization against those behaviors, we’ve created a diagnostic survey that includes:

  • A rating scale from -2 to +2 with examples of negative and positive behaviors to guide you in rating your organization
  • A table that turns your organization's score into an overall assessment: exceptional, satisfactory, average, underperforming, or ineffective
  • Recommendations to enhance your organization's collaborative innovation capabilities

To receive the survey, please submit your details below.

 Innovation Culture Characteristics

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