The Search for the Secret Sauce for Innovation Culture
by Tess Julian, CEO of Catalyst Exchange
Have you ever wondered what makes some organisations innovative while others use the best available techniques and advice but just can’t make it stick?
I’ve been studying this for a while now, observing companies who’ve gone through formal training, ideation workshops, tools, processes, technical skills development, culture strategies and employee-engagement mechanisms. Many still haven’t found what works but I’ve gained some insights that I’d like to share.
I jumped into the innovation space about 18 years ago to answer the question posed by a government brief: “How can we foster innovation through TAFE training?”
My consultancy focussed on researching practical skills, such as how to sell and to build, and how to train and assess these skills. The concept of innovation as a skill set was new and definitely outside the scope of our normal work. Our normal deliverable, and what the contract asked for, was units of competencies and learning materials, so that’s what we set out to develop.
Our small team of psychologists, teachers and researchers, started by asking what innovation meant and why it was important. It didn’t take long to find the answer.
At the time Kodak was struggling to survive because of the decline in its film products owing to the rise of digital technologies; Nokia was still dominant in mobile phone technology but would be buffeted by the smartphone; Apple, after years of volatility, had reinstated Steve Jobs who triggered the company’s breathtaking rise to global technology dominance; and of course, the World Wide Web and the Internet were becoming ubiquitous. The need to adapt and innovate, to keep pace with the technology revolution, was urgent.
But what did that mean in practical terms? Initially our focus was on creativity, that is, how to get new ideas. Is it nature or nurture? Can you codify it?
We interviewed those whose product is ideas—designers, architects, musicians, artists and writers. What’s their process? Can it be learned? How would a plumber, a builder or a teacher apply it?
We researched the leading practitioners from around the world, including Harvard, Ideo and Dardon Institute. To our surprise, we learned that often coming up with ideas is the easy part. It’s making these ideas work that is the challenge.
Our working definition evolved to: Innovation is new ideas or the new use of old ideas that add value when implemented.
Once we understood that innovation didn’t only apply to products and technology but also to services, marketing, business models—to everything in fact—we set out to define a process and a skill set to help make ideas happen whatever the context. We ended up with six stages, which became the framework for the competency standards:
1. Interpret the need for the user
2. Generate ideas that fulfil the need
3. Collaborate and build the concept
4. Represent and prototype to test it out
5. Reflect to improve it
6. Evaluate and refine before implementing
We tested this process in a range of industries—government, not for profit, finance and manufacturing—and confirmed that it made sense and could work. Teams came up with better ideas and they implemented them successfully. Using the process also improved the working lives of team members. It added a dimension that gave them control and satisfaction―they were more engaged. We learned that appropriate culture, leadership and reinforcement mechanisms were essential.
Then we wrote our findings into competency standards, published and launched them, and a few brave trainers in the TAFE system used them. They’re still on the database today!
This first dive taught me that competencies and qualifications are important signals that innovation is crucial but on their own they can’t change an organisation’s culture.
Our next step was to develop a method of delivery so that we could help organisations innovate. Along with the process and skills, we included tools. The program worked wonderfully for selected people in dedicated teams. But, over time, we saw that it was hard to make it all stick, to make the process available to everyone and to make it the way people work every day.
I learned that tools and processes are essential to provide prompts for new thinking and behaviour but alone, without other ingredients, they don’t live up to the promise.
Scientific research and collaboration had become the focus of government policy, so I branched out into open innovation and joined a new company. Our job was to help companies find the research to make the changes they needed to keep up with customers’ wants and needs.
It quickly became apparent that finding the science was the easy part, the real challenge was collaborating, adapting and implementing―the everyday activities that make innovation happen.
STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills) is critical for much innovation―science and research often provide solutions and opportunities for innovation but alone they don’t solve the innovation culture problem.
I moved on to work with Hargraves Institute, which brings together Australia’s leading innovators, big companies―public, private, manufacturing and service―that share their secrets and create a “collective wisdom”.
While many members had made huge strides, it seemed that they also struggled with momentum… how to keep the innovation rolling in every day. These companies have great strategies for innovation and have successfully introduced new products through teams and new product development. They have tried the best practice tools, processes and leadership training. They’ve had breakthrough ideas. They’ve used idea management systems and creativity sessions, they’ve introduced collaborative working and innovation hubs but they still hadn’t found the secret sauce―that magic that transforms the whole organisation.
At that time, our prime minister was espousing the importance of innovation—he talked about being agile and Uber, being tech smart and digital, but most of the electorate only heard “stuff that doesn’t include me”. Many voters didn’t see the relevance of innovation to their working lives.
At Hargraves, we focussed on people―customers and employees―we figured that if we engaged them, we will have found the secret sauce.
Through Hargraves Institute conferences and workshops, we heard the stories about what companies do to encourage people-based innovation. There are systems, processes and tools for motivation, ideas management for opportunity, training for customer focus and innovation thinking. There are people who can champion and coach their peers. They’ve introduced recognition and awards, and leaders are visible and encouraging. There are processes that help to create better and new ideas.
We then set up Catalyst Exchange Pty Ltd to share these insights with other companies through The Catalyst Approach―a set of principles that organisations can use and customise to engage all employees in their innovation culture.
It’s still early days, we’ve seen real success but we’re still learning how to overcome the barriers. Sometimes employees are intimidated―they don’t want to put their name to an idea that might fail. Others don’t have the confidence to speak up. Some managers are too busy focussing on today to give time to tomorrow. Leaders know that they need it but think it should be easier than it is, that if they say “innovate” it will just happen.
Over the years I’ve successfully used competencies, tools, processes, techniques, systems and strategies, but something is still missing.
What is the recipe for the secret sauce that will create an organisational culture that innovates?
I don’t know for sure, but my hunch is that it lies within the individual employee. When push comes to shove, nothing will work over the long term unless the individual employee—operator, manager or leader—wants it to work, sees the benefit for themselves and feels confident that they can contribute.
We’ve called the secret sauce “Innovation Mindset”—the beliefs, the standpoint, the behaviours and the actions that the individual employee can bring to the innovation table. Once you establish that innovation is important, that there is a purpose, employees can identify what they can contribute. They recognise that creativity is important but so are a lot of other attributes that they have in spades. They acknowledge that in some situations dedicated innovators and project teams are needed but for most of the time it’s them, in their day-to-day jobs who can create real impact. They see that behaviours like being open, curious, critical and gritty are their strengths that can make a big difference. They understand why a range of people and views is so important. They see that without these beliefs, attitudes and behaviours, innovation tools and processes will have only limited success.
So, I think we’ve found the secret sauce… it’s the mindset of your employees, it’s the way individual mindsets combine to make a healthy team and it’s how the organisation reinforces and fosters the individuals to apply their mindset strengths.
Like any good sauce, this one must be made from the right ingredients (belief, standpoint, behaviours and actions), it needs a splash of something special to create its unique flavour (innovation tools, skills and processes, such as design thinking, agile and lean), and it doesn’t taste so good on its own, it needs to garnish other dishes (such as project management, technical skills, research, product development, processes and systems).
Innovation Mindset is the secret sauce that can enhance any work activity and has the potential to transform your organisation.