Friday, December 24, 2010

4 characteristics of an innovative culture

Last week I made a presentation on “Role of a manager as an innovation catalyst” to 50 odd managers at their company’s offsite. One manager asked me, “What are the characteristics of an innovative culture?” For some reason, I was not happy with my answer. Hence, the question stayed with me. Here is an attempt to present my view of 4 characteristics of an innovative culture in an organizational context.

Experimentation: The first sign that an organization is innovative is visible through the kind of experiments being performed. Typically experiments manifest themselves in the form of prototypes. For example, in a hospital the CEO showed me a checklist prepared by a nurse and subsequently institutionalized in all other branches. In another place, I saw a portal which sourced the latest blogs, ideas, news posted within the organization and showed it in different windows. In a place like Tihar Jail the prototype could very well be the notebooks of the inmates trying to learn alphabets (see the picture above).

Reflection: When you take the question, “How are you doing?” seriously, what you do next is called reflection. Similarly, when a team sits around after a milestone and asks, “What did we do right? What could we have done better?” it is a collective reflection. Why is reflection important? Because that is when you try to make sense out of the clutter in your mind. Only when I reflected did I realize the impact of Daniel Kahneman’s talk on “Psychology of intuition” on my thinking. Only after reflection a team may come to know the diverse set of assumptions under which development and test teams were working. Reflection is visible through the nature of communication in meetings, post project analysis reports, blogs, newsletters, quarterly communication etc.

Recognition: There are two forms of recognition: covert and overt. When an idea suggested by Paul Buchheit or David Grossman gets selected by the organization for further development it is a form of covert recognition. When Toyota announces gold, silver and bronze medals for the best innovators it is overt recognition. When TVS Motors sponsors Srinivasan to attend Kaizen conference in Malaysia that is also a form of recognition. When P&G’s feminine care division gives “Presidents Fail Forward Award” to the “team or individual that enabled the organization to significantly learn from a failure”, it also sends a message about what company values.

Collaboration: Collaboration happens at multiple levels: within a team, across teams, across business units and across companies. If “experimentation” is the first sign of an innovative culture, “collaboration” is the defining characteristic of innovation maturity. At Tihar Jail, collaboration was fostered through various communities like Legal Panchayat, Food Panchayat run by inmates. At another client, every year they form a cross-functional team and send them to the market and ask for their suggestions on the new trends and possible areas for new investments. This year I met a senior engineer who meets his friend from a different group for an hour every month to thrash out ideas – some of them turn out to be patents. I feel "collaboration" especially cross-functional collaboration is the toughest of these four to inculcate.

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  1. Hi Vinay,

    Not particularly a comment on this article, but came across a news story that can be a good case study for systematic innovation. You may want to have a look, in case you haven't seen it already.


  2. Adding a comment I received through e-mail from my friend Raj Padala:


    Couple of things I can think of as characteristics (probably more basic than the 4 in your blog):

    Open mindedness (Receptive to new and different ideas or the opinions of others; tolerant of opposing viewpoints)




  3. Adding another excellent input I received over e-mail from my friend Malla Chakravarthy (Chakri) who is Associate Vice President at ADP India and has experience in leading innovation programs:

    ---Input starts here--------

    I think it is either implicitly mentioned in your blog or the two references you mentioned. If the only job is innovation, then the organization has to be innovative! This can be true at a team level also! You need a strong platform for the innovation to flourish, a strong platform where all the other functions like operations, marketing, sales etc. are running effectively. I am saying effectively, not efficiently. Efficient is ideal condition; but they should at least be effective in the sense that they should not consume the energy of rest of the organization. And innovation is a responsibility that should come with objectives / goals, resources and environment.

    Apart from the fear of failure, the other killer of any initiative is the perception that the effort or the result does not matter or is of no consequence. Objectives & goals need not be end product, but the path or the proof of effort itself. These lend credence to the initiatives and inspire the people to take these up.

    Resources can include time and effort too, apart from the physical resources. Both these aspects send a clear and strong message that innovation is a serious and real business here!

    Environment is important, but is covered by you. An important aspect is no fear of failure. As mentioned in one of the reference articles, lower the anxiety of learning; even better would be to celebrate the failure!

    Now, let me admit; these might have been there in the blog, but I probably did not fully understand…


  4. Another excellent input from Dr. Mahesh Mehendale, Fellow at Texas Instruments, Bangalore. Certainly got me thinking on new directions:


    I read your article on innovation culture. The 4 characteristics which you have highlighted are important, but then these are the key characteristics that any successful organization has/should have, so the link to “innovation culture” is not that strong/ unique. There are characteristics such as taking risks, giving “space” and “time” to the individuals in the organizations to pursue their passions etc. which have a stronger/direct link to “innovation culture” (well, these are my initial thoughts on reading the article).


  5. Here is a gem from Vijay Anand, MD of Intuit India:


    I think it is about people who are passionate about their ideas. They are able to freely express them. There is a safe environment that allows them to share, learn and experiment and fail. Reward is simply rate of progress of their idea, the learning in it for them. This is bottom up, empowered and democratized. A good analogy is Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner. You measure this culture by how many of your people actively participate and the rate of progress of their ideas (to success and failure).

    We’re experimenting with this, let’s see where and how far we go.

    My 2c.