How Do We Get Our Culture to Allow Ideas to Flourish?

February 9, 2018

Imagine you run a taxi business. You’re successful—the biggest in several cities. But naturally, there’s competition. You know you can’t take success for granted. You’ve come up with ideas to keep customers loyal—like capped fares, choice of car, and guaranteed pickup times You were first to bring in cabs with TV, Wi-Fi, and a booking app.

You’ve attracted new customers, underlining your green credentials with a fleet of electric cars. And, you’ve beefed up revenues, diversifying with a spinoff courier operation.

It’s great incremental innovation, and it’s kept you on top, despite Uber. But a change is coming that’s going to call for a much more fundamental shift. In the not-too-distant future, driverless cars will transform your business. Do you try to find a place in this future by selling transport as a service? Or, do you move into different kinds of transport – electric scooters, or frictionless tubes of hyperloop?

Innovation is Essential—But Hard

When businesses face situations like this, they need new ideas, whether they’re incremental or disruptive. And they know it.

Our latest research says two out of three businesses realize they won’t survive without innovation. But, only 24 percent say they have the right skills for innovation, and only 37 percent have changed their approach to it in the last three years.

How do you boost the chances of coming up with innovative ideas? And how do you stop them from risk of aversion or getting suffocated by the corporate inertia pillow?

Our research tell us that successful innovators have a lot in common. They aren’t bound by the habits of today as they anticipate the future. This means they understand their industry and customers so deeply that they can see change coming and get ahead of it, as well as the competition. They have a framework of systems and processes that foster new ideas, spot the best ones, and commercialize them. They look beyond the business itself for ideas, and into their network of partners and suppliers. 

Culture is the Key

None of this can happen without the right culture. As former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner said, “Culture is not an aspect of the game, it is the game.”

Culture is intangible. You can’t go out and buy it. Culture is when many things come together to give people a shared feeling and understanding about a business. Your culture will either make them feel the business is open to new ideas, or it won’t.

Start With ‘Why’

A big part of that feeling comes from your purpose and how you articulate it. Why do you exist? The clearer you are about that, the better you’ll be at sparking, scouting, and channelling ideas. If your company’s mission is to facilitate the transportation of customers “by taxi in a value-added manner,” you won’t inspire anyone. They’ll be busy pondering what “value-added” means. If you say you’re about “getting people from A to B quickly, comfortably, and cheaply,” you take away all doubt. By removing ‘taxi’ you allow yourself to try new things.

You also create the bedrock for an employer value proposition to help you attract and keep the best people.

Mind Your Language 

The words you use, verbally and in writing, are the clearest expression of your culture. As with culture in general, leaders set the tone. Half of businesses we surveyed said their leaders lacked the vision and passion needed to make innovation happen. In a lot of cases, that could be down to the language they use. If your CEO talks like a compliance manual or loads every sentence with words like “synergy,” “granularity,” and “scalability,” they won’t get people behind a vision. With simple, straightforward language, they’re more likely to inspire and persuade their people, partners, investors, and everyone else the business relies on to succeed.

Clear, honest language also lets people know you trust them. It’s part of how you give them permission to be creative. We recently helped The American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST), a medical association specializing in pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine, map out a strategy to stay ahead in its field. Their COO lays down an unmistakeable marker, saying CHEST is “revolutionary” and embarked on “a series of small changes leading to a big innovation.”

Be Comfortable with Uncertainty

More than eight out of ten companies we surveyed shy away from this, rewarding uniformity over creativity. In industries from medical instruments to fast food, uniformity is what keeps customers buying. But, can businesses that run solely on uniformity adapt when the world changes? Kodak showed what can happen if they don’t. A globally trusted brand, they could have been Instagram (and more) if they’d evolved from film cameras to digital.

Succeeding with new ideas means being prepared to embrace the unknown. That’s intrinsically alien to a lot of organizations. Corporate decision-making structures are there to sustain the status quo and control risk. They can also stifle innovation. As one client told me, “If you pitch a new idea to VC companies, it only takes one executive to greenlight it. In your own company, if only one executive says no, the idea is dead.”

If Netflix hadn’t been comfortable with uncertainty, they’d still be mailing rented DVDs to subscribers. If anyone had suggested the business create its own content, the idea would have been snuffed out for being too offbeat.

Consider redefining success to include failure. Rally Health is a digital health business using techniques like gamification to help people take control of their health and get a grip on complex healthcare insurance benefits. 

President and COO David Ko said: “We tell employees we want to be a company that continuously innovates. It can’t end. It’s got to be in everything we do, which means that some of the things we’re going to do aren’t going to work – and that’s okay.”

Protect your big ideas

Let’s think about the taxi business. Its record for ideas is good, but the next one might be too different for everyone to handle right now. When this happens, give the idea its own space—literally and metaphorically—so the established culture doesn’t overwhelm it. The team behind it work to their own rules and goals, freed from constraints like sales targets. The skill is judging when to go from lab to launch and integrate the disruptive innovation into the business.

Test Your Culture

Once culture is in place, how do you sustain it? Take a look at clothing and shoe retailer Zappos. Culture matters so much there that 50 percent of the decision-making about new-hires comes down to “cultural fit.” After their first week, the company offers them $2,000 to quit (an idea that’s spread to owner Amazon). That’s how far they go to make sure their people perpetuate the culture. Would you back yours that strongly? Would you test people’s faith in ideas by offering them money to stop working on them?

That’ll show whether you really are ready to thrive in a world without taxis.

Hsiu Mei Wong is the US Chief Innovation Officer for PA Consulting. InnoLead regularly publishes Thought Leadership pieces written by our Strategic Partner firms.