#379  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 1          January 1999

Organizational Culture and Innovation
by Ray Anthony

Mr. Anthony is president of Genesis Training Solutions in The Woodlands, Texas (e-mail: innovader@aol.com). and author of High Octane Selling (AMACOM, New York, 1995).  

Every organization has a unique culture that drives the form, degree, and speed of innovation.  Metaphorically, you might call your institutional culture the “collective personality” of your organization.  I often compare it to a computer’s operating system that oversees (behind the scenes) how operations really function.  An organization’s culture, which consists of deeply imbedded values, beliefs, philosophies, attitudes, and operating norms, essentially boils down to “how things are done around here.”

One of the initial steps in sculpting an innovative culture for creativity and boldness is to discuss and assess your present organization’s culture.  You can do this by answering the following 15 groups of questions that address (indirectly and directly) how innovation is either ignited and fueled, or snuffed out, within the borders of your organization.

Culture Assessment

1. Do employees know your organization’s vision, mission, and key strategies?  Do they aggressively and imaginatively focus toward achieving them?  How would you describe the culture of your organization?  What would you change to make it more conducive to innovation?

2. How supportive is your culture to: a) risk-taking, b) creative experimentation, and c) responsive implementation of ideas?  Which aspects of the culture, specifically stifle each of these?

3.  What are the real motivating factors that regulate individual and team activities?  What effect do they have on employees being more creative and proactive?

4. What specific bureaucratic rules, procedures, norms, methods, and management behaviors inhibit innovation?  How can they be eliminated, minimized, or modified?

5. What factors or types of “successes” determine how front-line employees, managers, and executives are recognized, rewarded, and promoted?  What are people penalized for?  How does that affect on-going innovative efforts?

6. How does your organization view: a) daring (even far-fetched) ideas, b) ultra-visionary concepts, c) calculated risk-taking, and d) unavoidable mistakes from creative endeavors that didn’t pan out?   Is failure generally seen as a learning or a (career) burning experience?

7.  How does your organization deal with frequent change?  Historically, what’s been the resulting consequences and impact?   What causes change and who typically drives it?  How is change planned and executed? 

8.  What is the ratio between employees focusing on problem-solving (“fighting fires”) and opportunity-seeking (exploring for, and grabbing, new opportunities) for your organization?

9. Do employees feel appreciated for their ideas and recommendations?  Do they perceive personal benefits (psychic and financial) for being innovatively proactive?  What causes employees to stop their flow of ideas and drop out from actively pursuing innovation?

10. Does your organization have a structured innovative process that’s regularly used to generate ideas (from mild to wild) and implement them effectively and efficiently?  How much flexibility do people have in going outside of their normal job descriptions?

11. Who typically comes up with ideas? How are they usually created--by individuals or teams, in formal brainstorming sessions, or informally and spontaneously?  What percentage of ideas are implemented and how long does it generally take?  How are potentially blockbuster ideas evaluated?

12.  How would you describe the overall communication climate in your organization?  To what extent is it open, honest, frank, positive, and supportive versus closed, adversarial, or chain-of-command driven, for example?  How does communication affect the way people react to ideas and work together to approve, and implement them?

13.  To what extent does your organization invest in sufficient employee training for: a) creative problem-solving, b) imaginative thinking, c) innovation concepts and application, and d) synergistic team-building techniques?  Are employees given adequate resources (materials, time, funds, etc.) to pursue steady innovation?

14.  Are team operating standards and individual performance criteria specific and clear enough to guide creative activity?  Are they periodically reviewed and modified?

15. Is your organization more forward-looking than dwelling on previous successes and doing the same, even with diminishing returns?  Does your culture permit a carefully tuned balance between short-term returns (tactical mode) and investments of time and energy for long-term gains (strategic mode)?

Culture is a major determinant of an organization’s ability and desire to innovate.  Understanding what your culture is now, and how it needs to evolve, will help map out a way to produce even higher octane levels of performance in your organization, whatever its size and makeup may be. 

So, how do you rate your organization’s culture as it relates to innovation?

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