Innovation is attractive, even sexy. Working in an innovative company is something that attracts us all. Many of us would like to work for companies in which we are offered free time to develop our ideas, we have inspiring physical spaces, and fun working and sticking colourful post-its.
After all, we have been told this is how they are innovative companies. However, the truth is that creating an innovative culture that brings results is awfully complicated. This is because the reality for innovative companies is very different from the one often transmitted to us with sweetened, simplistic visions.
There is a distorted picture about innovation, and on the organizational cultures in which this is created. Successful innovation is often believed to depend on providing a failure-tolerant environment where there is a willingness to experiment, where people work collaboratively, and with flatter-hierarchical structures. The reality is that even though these elements are important, in any case they aren’t enough.
These aspects usually get our attention and draw admiration. They even trigger envy, but they're just one side of the coin. Innovation, as Edison said, is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Thus, there is a flipside of the coin that is far less glamorous, and we tend to pay less attention to it, yet it is crucial for innovation to produce results.
Each of the aspects mentioned above must be counterbalanced by other aspects that are less fun and inspiring, but just as necessary. There must also be a quest for excellence, which implies an intolerance for incompetence, rigorous discipline, high individual accountability and strong leadership. Let's look at some examples of these aspects forming part of the two sides of the same coin:
- Tolerance for failure, but intolerance for incompetence
As innovation implies novelty and consequently uncertainty, it is necessary for the company to show a high ability to take on risks, and subsequently acceptance of failure. But under no circumstances should this be confused with accepting mediocracy or employee incompetence. Failures to do with uncertainty are acceptable, but not those arising from faulty analysis or mismanagement. Companies that embrace innovation are extremely demanding of their employees.
- Willingness to experiment, but in a disciplined and rigorous manner
Organizations experimenting with their ideas know that this is a mechanism for resolving questions and managing uncertainty. However, this does not mean conducting experiments in a disorderly and chaotic manner. Experiments are chosen, based on the assumptions you want to learn about and taking into account that maximum learning must be extracted at the lowest possible cost. Experimentation also implies accepting that new learning can prove a key assumption is wrong and this may mean killing off a project that was originally thought to be promising.
- Collaboration, but with individual accountability
An innovation project often needs to draw from various areas of knowledge and disciplines. That’s why multidisciplinary teams are set up to work collaboratively for exchanging information, generating ideas and analysing alternatives. However, collaboration should not be confused with consensus. Lastly, someone must take responsibility, make decisions, and be accountable for them.
- Horizontal structure, yet with strong leadership
Organizations with horizontal structures are better designed for people to make decisions, express their opinions, and act more autonomously. These types of structures respond sooner to change as decision-making is decentralized. But then again, this must be offset by strong leadership. In fact, with stronger leadership that a hierarchical organization needs, because there is a risk of such organizations becoming chaotic environments if the leadership does not set clear strategic directions and priorities.
Leading change towards creating an innovative culture is complicated. To achieve this, it is essential to get away from the ingenuous and naive vision that usually prevails and assume that this requires a number of aspects that seem contradictory at first glance. It is also crucial to understand that the balance between these aspects must be sought, to avoid overly weighting one of these extremes while not offsetting it with the other counterweight at the right intensity.
Therefore, building environments in which ideas flow and generate results is not easy at all. Innovation is freedom and autonomy, but also discipline and rigour. It is necessary to find the balance between the two extremes. Just as a good cocktail requires the right amount of each drink to get the ideal blend, innovation requires an adequate dose of aspects that, while complementary, may seem incompatible.