The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures

By Gary P. Pisano (Harvard Business Review, Jan 2019)

ABSTRACT:

This article offers some important insights as to why some companies are successful in pursuing innovation while others fail at it. The proposition advanced by the author is that the nature of innovative cultures is misunderstood. He seeks to dispel five common misconceptions about how innovative companies work  and at the same describing what in fact they do.

The author sets out under five headings some widely-held myths about how innovative companies go about doing their business and he points out why they are misplaced or inaccurate. He asserts based on his research over a long period that only a proper appreciation of the demands which are made of employees in highly innovative organisations will enable those seeking to emulate them to do so.

The five myths he enumerates and his commentary on each one can be summarised as follows:

  • There is no generalised tolerance for failure in innovative organisations. Many people believe that there is a free and easy atmosphere in such organisations where almost anything goes and team members have carte blanche to embark on any project that takes their fancy. In fact, innovative organisations accept that some failures are inevitable but they do not accept those that result from incompetence. They will not tolerate “… mediocre technical skills, sloppy thinking, bad work habits and poor management…”.
  • Willingness to experiment does not mean that that experimentation can be hit or miss affairs. Rather they require careful formulation of goals, careful setting out of process and rigorous execution.
  • Innovative organisations, typically are ones where psychological safety prevails which means that everyone feels that they can voice their opinion without fear of retribution. However, by the same token when employees fall short the criticism can be harsh and sometimes brutal. Every action or statement may be scrutinised regardless of the person’s title.
  • Collaboration is not the same as consensus. While working together towards common goals is a feature of innovative organisations, responsibility for decisions cannot be shared. Ultimately, someone has to bear the responsibility and be accountable for decisions that are made.
  • No multiple levels of executive status does not mean an absence of leadership. Strong leadership is still required to set out a vision for the organisation and to hold the reins so that plans reach fruition.

These pointers can offer valuable guidelines and criteria for those wishing to transform their company culture or to adapt it to one where the search for innovation is amongst the top priorities. Some features of innovative culture are easy to digest and will be popular, others are less palatable but are a necessary part of building an innovative and competitive organisation.

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