Supporting an innovation culture
INTRO: Hey, you’re going to ‘Innovate’, and grow an ‘Innovation Culture’. Great! But what does that actually mean?
There’s not a Defence-wide definition of an ‘innovation culture’, any more than there is an industry-wide one. Don’t say I told you, but the Director Innovation in CIOG has developed a really good definition that I think is worth sharing. It lists the four Key Innovation Values of Collaboration; Learning - fostering a culture of learning over just knowing, or not;Passion - believing in what you’re doing; and Impact - what effect, what changes, will result from implementing an innovation? (If they’re not worth the effort, then the ‘innovation’ may not be very innovative.)
Importantly, it acknowledges the imperfection of reality and the value of timing: innovation requires us to be timely, not perfect, in our solutions. Any soldier, or salesman, would agree.
How does the culture manifest itself in an organisation? Again, CIOG has thought about this. It acknowledges the risk and uncertainty that are part of the innovation process, and the need to manage failure – both actual and incipient – and learn from it; it acknowledges the vital role of a committed leader, and of champions in both the innovating organisations and their customers.
There’s a circular argument here: does introducing an innovation culture change an organisation, or do you need to change an organisation in order for an innovation culture to flourish? A bit of both, in my view. The key is a leadership that’s invested in the innovation process and the outcomes it can deliver. In practical terms, CIOG reckons an innovation culture enables or provides:
· Access to Safe Spaces: both virtual and physical, to take calculated risks and explore
· Time Autonomy: Time allocated for innovation and experimentation without being micromanaged
· Recognition: Leaders recognising the contribution of innovators
· Collaboration: Working outside silos for effective innovation.
· Multidisciplinary: Diversity of thought and experience for individuals and teams
· Playful Discovery: fostering creativity through gamified processes or tactile exploration.
· Champions: Role models for innovation, including organisation leaders, who are invested in furthering the innovation agenda.
· Future Thinking: Ensuring that the future is a key consideration in the present-day problem-solving process.
This is a good cultural blueprint for any organisation looking to enhance its business processes, efficiency and competitiveness. Helpfully, some Australian universities have explored this cultural space in depth – industry can learn from them, if it chooses.
The literature on innovation throws up some persistent lessons: supportive leadership is one; being a subject matter expert on what you’re doing is another; and customer knowledge is a third.
Leadership is absolutely vital: it’s leaders who (should) set the tone of the organisation and the expectations of its customers and staff; who (should) introduce an innovation culture into an organisation and sustain it; and who (should) arrange things so that innovators can help the organisation (a manufacturing company, an air force, a law firm, or a pizza shop) to flourish. If they decide to innovate, good leaders can bring the organisation with them; if they don’t choose to innovate or, worse, choose notto innovate, the organisation is likely to stagnate.
But it’s important to look outside the organisation. Customer knowledge is the product of customer engagement. For companies producing goods or services in a highly competitive market, the more they understand their customers and end users, the better.
Defence is working the engagement issue as a customer, but is understandably reticent about revealing apparent weaknesses and pain points, even to trusted industry players. But Defence’s innovation processes do acknowledge that engagement is important, not least because Defence leaders don’t always know what they don’t know and nor do industry and academic leaders, so they all need to be open to each other’s insights.
For many SMEs the customer might be Defence, and the end-user a member of the ADF, but the customer’s more likely to be a bigger company higher up the supply chain. Regardless, a smart supplier invests in understanding its customers; and smart, innovative customers take the trouble to understand the market they’re in and how a smart, innovative supplier can help them. They encourage and welcome useful engagement.
That means transparency and trust, two things that Australia’s business culture hasn’t always encouraged; for some reason, Australian industry and academia haven’t always embraced collaboration, and the Defence acquisition system’s need for probity doesn’t help because it deliberately maintains an arm’s length relationship with industry. All players need to learn how to trust. Remember the ‘collaboration’ bit earlier? You don’t collaborate without trust, and you don’t innovate if you can’t collaborate. That’s the cultural reality.