Building innovation culture

Aug 01 2019
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Comunet are now 3 years into establishing our innovation program and have just completed our 2nd all-of-staff innovation hackathon "One Team Challenge".

On the journey there have been hits and misses, but overwhelmingly positive outcomes that are now being realised across the business.

Here are 6 lessons learnt from our experiences in building a stronger innovation culture.

#1. Line up your ducks

When starting out with a goal to improve a company's adoption in using, supporting and promoting progressive technology and thinking, the temptation is to run. Before charging in on your stead and making sweeping changes, give yourself time to prepare. Cultural change requires bringing people with you, and you need to be armed with information to back your proposal.

  • Research. Before we began our journey, we started out by researching what we could from our industry leaders. As example we took inspiration from Atlassian’s ‘ShipIt’ days, Halfbrick Studios ‘Halfbrick Fridays’, and Google’s ‘80/20 Rule’. We read critiques, weighed the pros and cons and considered what an implementation at our business would look like.
  • Make a plan. We gathered our thoughts, shortlisted our ideas, and decided on the initiatives we wanted to act on. We put together a business case of our chosen innovation initiatives. In our plan we described; What we were going to do, why we were going to do it, our research and our reasoning as to what investment needed to be made.
  • Get Senior Management/Board support. We took our plan and presented to senior management for review, opinion, feedback. We made some changes, got it ratified and then we presented the plan to our board. Good communication is vital from the outset. It will be your greatest asset in implementing a successful innovation culture if your vision is understood and backed at the highest levels.
  • Build up your resources and skills to implement. Attend training. I am sure there are other similar businesses out there, but I can thoroughly recommend material and sessions from Inventium (www.inventium.com.au). These guys provide clear, simple, actionable steps to put in place and improve innovation processes and practices. Getting great training will make a big difference to the impact and success of your efforts. Training ensures you have the fundamentals right to formulate a suitable approach that works for your organisation and individual confidence and conviction in your delivery.

 

#2 Start small and build momentum

With your plan ratified, you can begin to implement a range of innovation initiates. It is ok to initially focus on a select few individuals, group, team or department within your organisation that is more naturally 'progressive' or comfortable with change.

Starting small allows you to get some quick wins and adjust your ideas before involving a wide group. In these early days it is not about ‘hitting home runs’ and producing amazing innovations, but getting staff used to thinking about how they could add value by looking beyond the day-to-day ‘Business As Usual’ (BAU) activities they typically perform. Your initial target group will later become your champions that will go on to help others in their journey by their example through demonstrating how naturally innovation is a part of their job alongside BAU work.

It should be your longer-term plan to widen your initiatives to the rest of the organisation. It is not helpful for a company’s culture, its productivity or its long-term outcomes to solely invest your innovation efforts in a select few, or an ‘innovation team’. It sends the wrong message, that 'here are the creative people, and here is everyone else'. Rather than be aspirational, grouping in this way is more likely to just demotivate staff not put in the 'special' group.

All staff have the capability to innovate and a responsibility within their job to further the businesses evolution and success.

“Once you have an innovation culture, even those who are not scientists or engineers - poets, actors, journalists - they, as communities, embrace the meaning of what it is to be scientifically literate. They embrace the concept of an innovation culture. They vote in ways that promote it. They don't fight science and they don't fight technology.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist, Author and Science communicator

Informed staff moving toward the same goals will reduce competing obstacles to success.

 

#3 Change is uncomfortable and that’s OK

At its heart innovation is change, and that is inevitably uncomfortable. Our innovation program at Comunet involves several initiatives. Our most known is our company-wide ‘One Team Challenge’ (OTC) where all staff are put in cross-department teams (teams of 6-7) and given one month to:

  • Find a problem worth solving
  • Ideate, to
  • Design a new product or service

The event includes a hackathon day and separate presentation day where solutions are judged, awards are given to the best team as well as bounty prizes. After the event solutions are more critically considered for further investment.

OTC is a manufactured innovation event, and it is unapologetically stressful.

This yearly event reinforces the core principal that innovation initiatives should be given time and budget but be lean and frugal. We still have a business to run and we don’t have the luxury of providing endless hours exploring possible new service offerings or products.

We recognise that this stress is uncomfortable, and while some people may naturally thrive on this type of environment, for others it may be destructive or detrimental to their wellbeing and ability to contribute.

Knowing this, have a plan that aims to mitigate and manage Bad Stress. 

  • Listen, observe, touch base with staff on a regularly basis particularly during times of significant change.
  • Provide clear guidance, resources and support for the initiatives you ask of your staff to reduce confusion and as many ‘unknowns’ as possible.
  • Give people space to find their feet but be prepared to step in and assist if you see warning signs of anybody struggling.

 

#4 Make the benefits of your innovation initiatives visible

The ongoing support for your innovation initiatives will live or die by how well it is communicated within the business. All business initiatives need the support of management, board and staff to continue to operate. Continually communicate and promote the activities, outcomes and learnings of your programs to all levels.

At Comunet we use a dedicated company-wide Microsoft Teams Channel to keep people informed and engage people in conversation. Getting staff interested and informed is half the battle won. Their active participation in the program will come naturally if you continue to build clear and believable pathways for individuals to get involved.

Another innovation initiative at Comunet is our ‘One Team Friday’ monthly R&D day. Any staff member can apply to be involved in working through a project of their design aimed at improving our company's knowledge, experience, capability or processes. To apply, a staff member completes a simple 1-page form that collects their thoughts on the projects goals, its benefits and their expected approach for the day. This information is to simply self monitor that the problem or idea has some plausible business or strategic value and that the time is fruitfully spent.


From a communication perspective a key component of this R&D day is the sharing of knowledge back to the wider company. Participants present their learnings back to an audience of interested and available staff. It’s an opportunity for ideas to be expanded and considered for other areas of the organisation and keeps all staff aware of the technologies and capabilities of their peers when talking to customers.

While products like MS Teams and Slack keep staff regularly engaged with company news as-it-happens, there is also a need to regularly recap the accomplishments of a business particularly when the activities align to key strategic goals. This both reinforces the reasons for investment in these initiatives and the iterative value it builds for the company. At Comunet, our weekly internal newsletter ‘TGIF’ is a great way to remind staff of our achievements, particularly as we have a mobile workforce where many of our staff may work offsite.

#5 Attract people to your vision

You will receive much less resistance when rolling out an innovation agenda if you choose an approach that draws people into wanting to be involved, than a method that forces others to take on your agenda.

In reflection of my own experiences, I have always been less successful when pushing an agenda uphill. Whether due to over-enthusiasm for my own idea, lack of patience or frustration of inertia, when I rushed out a plan or barged through conflict to bring to life an idea it has always been less effective and usually just put people offside.

‘The Stick’ doesn’t work, particularly when applied to a complex problem that requires vision to see. If you can’t visualise or understand why somebody needs a change to occur, then it only generates aggravation and uncertainty.

Pull people toward your vision by continually demonstrating value through communicating and promoting innovation activities, back your results with evidence, and make it desirable to be a part of.

People will move with you if they can see value, and for naysayers your vision becomes irrefutable as to its need.

 

#6 Despite best efforts, you will not please everyone

There will be some people who do not (or will not) accept your vision and may even actively work against you. It could be that they just don’t understand, can’t see the benefits over the current status quo, they fear the uncertainty of change, or simply just like things as they are (as its easier for them).

Much like politics, people have different ideologies. A business should decide upon a single ideology (their mission and vision statements) and attract people who subscribe to that ideology.

It is healthy to accept that not everyone has a long-term future at your organisation. Your vision does not need to change to support these individuals. Over time people make their own decisions as to whether they feel comfortable working in an ideology that they themselves do not subscribe to.

It is far worse to appease these individuals.

Companies with weak culture will have more internal politics and obstructions to get great ideas off the ground because they contain too many people with vastly different ideologies and competing interests.

Having a strong innovation culture is attracting like-minded staff who want to see their colleagues’ ideas succeed in market and share in that success.