Innovation – fad or cultural shift?

Innovation – fad or cultural shift?

At a recent Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) discussion on innovation the point arose that companies differ in their approach to the subject. Some treat it as a fad, something to be tagged onto the existing business to see if it produces results. They are the “give it a try” brigade. Next week, woks. Others regard innovation as a deeply rooted cultural change somewhat similar to rewriting one of the great religious prophesies. They are the hierarchical group who start by appointing an Archdeacon of Innovation.

Alas, my somewhat cynical approach to this is all too true. That does not mean that there are no organisations doing a splendid job of incorporating invention into their daily handling of business. We are aware of many of them. Look at their antecedents and you will likely see a single person or a small group, often well down the pecking order, who perceived a need and linked resources – available or obtainable – to it. Bosses – Dyson, Jobs, Branson and a few others excepted – seldom innovate. They are too busy trying to survive.

Tom Goodwin Head of Innovation, Zenith Media has written in several magazines about the importance of distinguishing an organisation’s approach to innovation as between a fad and a cultural shift. At the SICC discussion I illustrated a small approach that had worked well in increasing productivity when I was building Cerebos Pacific. It was the “Secs party”. (Sounds better when you say it.) Getting the secretaries together occasionally for an after-hours glass of wine allowed ideas to flow. I remember one bright lady saying the business was suffering from hierarchical diarrhoea. We took down the Chinese walls the next day.

And this is where the distinction between fad and culture is important. Nobody in their right mind thinks innovation is a bolt-on. However, it does require a bold approach. But culture takes time. I was once asked to change the culture of a business employing 125,000 people. After twenty-five years I had succeeded with about a third of it. That third went on to make spectacular profits and value gains but it left the other two thirds behind. I will never know if that was really necessary.

How is a big organisation to change its culture to embrace innovation without disturbing the whole machine? The first answer is ‘slowly’. That’s a relative term, of course, but you have to believe that too fast cultural change is always dangerous. If you doubt this I refer you to Washington. Apart from the total unacceptability of the new culture, the speed at which it has been, and is being, introduced is guaranteed to make it fail. People don’t stop praying just because they no longer believe in God.

We’ve all heard the mantra of how the top man must be committed to any cultural change. You cannot fault Washington on this one but you can observe that proselytising is a collective activity, not a lone star exercise. Sure, great organisations are the lengthening shadow of one person but it takes the generals to make it work. The leader is nobody without his supporters. Good leadership is the essence of innovation.

A company that is not innovating is dying. As with all dying organisms, it needs a shot in the arm plus a sustained regime of better life-style. One without the other won’t work. Innovation may well start as a fad (the shot). It will only succeed if it is sustained, nurtured and given a good boot up the rear end all the time.

Creativity is the ability to perceive relationships.

Innovation is the process of making them profitable.

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