Innovative cultures have a high degree of tolerance for risk and failure. They are marked out by their non-hierarchical structure, psychological safety, collaboration, and experimentation. And this all adds up to successful innovation. Right? Maybe not so quick.
Gary Pisano from Harvard Business School* surveyed hundreds of managers at seminars across the globe. The common perception of innovative cultures is that they are ‘pretty fun’, as Pisano puts it. A culture good for innovation is beneficial to the company’s bottom line and valued by employees. None of the managers said they didn’t want to work for an innovative company. But Pisano believes that innovative cultures are largely misunderstood. Just like creativity, innovation can be messy. So what is missing in terms of how we perceive them? And why are they tricky to create and sustain?
“The easy-to-like behaviors that get so much attention are only one side of the coin. They must be counterbalanced by some tougher and frankly less fun behaviors.” – Pisano
Innovative cultures are paradoxical. Counterbalances to the ‘fun’ aspects are what makes innovation possible. For example – around novel tech and business models exists a high degree of uncertainty. We explore what we don’t yet know, or think we might know, and learn as we go. A failure in this sense offers us insights to move forward. But failure could also be the result of designs or plans that are not thought out, a lack of transparency, or simple disorganisation. High tolerance for failure offers learning, but must be backed up by high competence. The two seem like opposites but really go hand in hand – a paradox.
Four paradoxes for effectively innovating
1. Tolerance of failure must be backed up with intolerance of incompetence
2. Psychological safety requires radical candour
3. Willingness to experiment needs to be underpinned by rigorous discipline
4. Effective collaboration is liberated by individual accountability
The climate dimension
In addition to these paradoxes, the climate must ‘work’. This takes experimentation, focus, and discipline. So what could we look at? Here are a few ideas about climate characteristics.
• Anti-fragile: Energetic, optimistic, curious, and determined, leans into chaos or messiness, core belief that things can be different and better
• Purposeful: imaginative, visionary, anchored – appreciates that we need ‘just-in-time’ and ‘just-in-case’ thinking for the longer-term benefit of business, people, planet
• Dynamic: brings analysis and action together, is decisive, transparent, can move on when needed
• Has high social capital: respects and nurtures a diversity of contribution, activates, and liberates it.
We can capture people data to help set up these kinds of climates, using frameworks such as The GC Index that identifies a preference for impact within an eco-system such as a team or unit, all against a larger cycle of change and innovation. Margaret Heffernan, Dan Coyle, and Nassim Taleb also provide such rich input through their extensive work and thinking.
The shining fifth paradox – the leadership dimension
The last counterbalance is the strong leadership required for flatter structures. This deserves its own space, and a lot more than we’ll give it in this post. Tensions can, will, and possibly should arise through differences of view, uncertainty, confusion, and changing circumstances. As tech entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan notes: ‘For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, and debate.’
Leaders need to successfully ventilate and hold these tensions to prevent a failure of the system. And sometimes, people who can’t adapt need to be ushered out. Managing the paradoxes with decisiveness and transparency is not always recognised as the easiest or most fun job (depending on what energises you and how you like to make your biggest impact), but it’s critical.
If you want to innovate – get disciplined. Set high-performance standards for your people. Recruit the best talent you can. We can support experimentation with risky ideas that may ultimately fail, but accepting mediocre tech or management skills, sloppy thinking, poor work habits and low levels of commitment is never going to bring us that ‘zero-to-one‘ luck.
Navigating these paradoxes and setting up exploratory climates need not be pie in the sky. We just need to get started.
* The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures, Gary Pisano, Professor Harvard Business School. Harvard Business Review, Jan – Feb 2019.
This article was first published in the May Edition of Talent Talks Magazine