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Jones: Innovative culture leads to results

Published: Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

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Look around the popular business press lately and you’ll find a heightened interest in innovation. There have been many, many voices adding to that of James M. Kilts, former chairman and CEO of Gillette, who said: “Innovation is critical to growth in a competitive environment. Without innovation, you stall, your competitors take over, and you die.”

Such articles abound. They encourage companies to engage in creative thinking methods designed to spur ideation, to glean fresh ideas from social networks, and to incorporate innovative personality traits when building teams to generate new ideas.

I’ll add my voice as well, because innovation is absolutely critical in today’s business environment.

Yet despite all the media attention, we continue to struggle.

In fact, firms typically don’t fail at innovation because ideas are lacking. Ideas tend to be plentiful. Rather, innovation fails because of an organizational culture that either prevents ideas from surfacing or quickly destroys them as they emerge.

Innovative ideas are killed every day by internal politics and resistance to change within organizations. Think about the last time you heard one of these comments: “That can’t work here,” “That’s just too risky,” “There’s no budget for that,” or “That’s not the way things are done here.”

These remarks are indicators innovation has been identified as a threat and is in danger. Instead of pursuing a quest for new ideas and finding they fail during execution, place the emphasis on strengthening a culture that can support innovation.

Clarify Vision: Creating shared vision is essential. It should be understood and articulated by every contributor, from front line to corner office. This helps keep the focus on what is important for the entire organization rather than benefiting only one part of the organization. Innovation is quickly smothered when attention moves to individual contributions.

Support Diversity of Thought: Do make a conscious effort to include contributors who will respectfully question decisions, plans and results. By eliminating the expectation for passive acceptance, the addition of a fresh perspective may uncover unseen opportunities.

Communicate Continually: For innovation to flourish there must be a continual flow of information both internally and externally. Employees closest to customers and suppliers are a natural portal through which innovative ideas can flow into the organization.

Of course, genuine communication depends as much on receiving information as it does on disseminating information. Honest communication should be valued and there should be no hidden reward for withholding information.

Permit Risk-taking: To reap the benefits of innovation there must be support for measured failure. In "Celebrate Your Mistakes," author John Holt, Jr. shares this advice: “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking risks, and that means you’re not going anywhere. The key is to make mistakes faster than the competition so you have more chances to learn and win.”

Schedule Anticipation: Many organizations operate in a reactive mode swinging attention from crisis to crisis with little chance of recognizing the opportunities that exist within these challenges. Innovative cultures adopt a proactive approach to identifying potential challenges and threats. Perspective can be enhanced by implementing a systematic approach to scanning the internal and external environment which helps to identify opportunity amid adversity.

Developing a culture where innovation can flourish provides a prescription for results. It’s a remedy that, over time, creates a nurturing environment where fresh ideas continually take root and grow.

• Catherine Jones is executive director of workforce, community and business programs for McHenry County College’s Shah Center. She can be reached at 815-459-7752 or at cjones@mchenry.edu.

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