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An Innovation Clan Has an Innovation Culture

Quick story: I had been working on a project to bring a new-to-the-world product to market for two years. Like the dozen or so others on the team, I frequently worked long hours. We worked as a tight unit, and got the product successfully to market on time, and on budget.

At the company’s annual awards ceremony that year, I…did nothing. I wasn’t invited. Nor were most of my teammates. There was an imposed limit of five people per team award, so only the five top managers received the recognition.

Fast forward roughly 365 days or so. I had just joined a small team about six weeks earlier, working on a secret project in a remote laboratory. I had just made my first trip to the lab, serving primarily as a learning observer, and occasionally as a pair of hands when help was needed. The team had just achieved a break-through with a key technology involved in the project, and I needed to come up to speed quickly to be a contributor to further development.

At the company’s annual awards ceremony that year, I…walked up on stage and accepted the big crystal clock that was awarded to the team for the work leading to the breakthrough. The work that I was not even a small part of doing.

If you want to build an unmotivated culture of cynicism, I can strongly recommend this as an outstanding annual ritual to make that happen.

Fostering a Culture

Culture is based on the common objectives, behavioral norms and values of a group of people. It’s difficult to measure, difficult to change, and difficult to maintain. It is also the most powerful force in an organization. Over time, the best strategies, the best tactics, the best technologies, and even the best people will be overwhelmed by a bad culture. A good culture will make normal people perform as superstar teams.

Managers avoid tackling their organizational culture – whether at the corporate level or the small-team level – because it is so challenging to manage. But if you don’t manage your culture, it will manage you.

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the cultural norms that promote good innovation outcomes. In Part 2, we discussed what defines an "innovator clan." There is a difference, though, between knowing what these things are, and knowing how to go about getting them.

So what specifically must be done to manage a culture?

To Do List

Organizational experts have a number of different approaches to managing a culture, but these approaches have several common themes on which they agree.

1) Leaders must consciously define and buy into the culture they want. Even the experts who advocate a bottom-up approach to culture change recognize that without top-level support, such efforts will be wasted. Management must not limit cultural support to lip-service, either. It must be lived. The entire collection of organizational eyes will be on the leadership, and any perceived deviations of the walk from the talk will halt any progress.

2) Influence, don’t impose. Before the merger with AOL, Jerry Levin, then CEO of Time-Warner, decided that a change of culture was necessary. So he made a 45-minute video of himself outlining the new culture that was necessary, distributed it to the employees, and…nothing changed. The history of Time-Warner and AOL since has not been pretty. Just as one does not simply walk into Mordor, one does not simply announce a cultural change and “voila!” it happens. In addition to monitoring their own behaviors, leaders must recognize the appropriate behaviors of others visibly and extensively through the organization. Staff need to be both influenced to adjust their behaviors to the changes, and influencers in creating and sustaining the change.

3) Be in it for the long haul. Cultural change does not happen overnight. Nor in a fortnight. It is not a process that is ever truly finished. It must be constantly monitored, assessed, re-evaluated, and nurtured. It is not a program, but a way of living in the organization. Change programs are the means, not the ends themselves.

4) Hire slowly. Make sure that the right people who can effectively fit within the culture are hired. Treat each hiring as an adoption into a family rather than just an economic transaction. Involve peers in the hiring process, as they have a stake in knowing with whom they’ll be working. This will hasten the onboarding process as well, since peers will have already accepted new hires before they arrive.

5) Fire slowly…or maybe quickly. No matter how good the hiring process is, some who do not fit will make it through the screening process. It is important to remove such forces from the organization, so as not to allow them to infect others who do fit. There is disagreement among experts as to whether to fire quickly or slowly. There are two opposing forces: keeping a bad fit on board too long can erode team performance and lead good performers to leave; firing too quickly can erode individual sense of security, leading to reduced performance – and good performers leave out of fear for their jobs. I recommend erring on the side of firing slowly, while paying close attention to team dynamics.

6) Communicate, communicate, communicate. Communication is an ongoing process. It is a dialogue, not a monologue, involving at least as much listening as speaking. Words are only a small fraction of communication as well. Tone and behavior will drive your message far more than words alone. And communication must be an ongoing behavior, not a one-and-done event.

7) Establish rituals and ceremonies. Not like the corporate award program mentioned earlier, though. Effective rituals must be sincere. Effective rituals must be perceived as a fluid part of the behavioral norms. Effective rituals must support the culture. If you have a cultural objective of team cohesion, the rituals should be team oriented. Encourage team members to evaluate and reward (or sanction) each other based on conformance to the values and beliefs of the team, as opposed to being based on particular outcomes. Celebrating outcomes is okay, but rewarding outcomes alone will lead to their pursuit by any means necessary, including those that violate desirable cultural norms.

Defining and engendering a strong and effective corporate culture is the hardest effort that an innovation leader can undertake. It will also prove to be the most rewarding.

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