Four Steps to Getting Your Innovative Subculture to Spread

February 5, 2016

Michael Foster is an innovation and product strategy executive who has served in both global public corporations and startups. Most recently the Global Product InnoLead at Dun & Bradstreet, Michael focused on maturing the culture, behaviors and techniques for product innovation – an experience that prompted our request for him to submit this column. Michael was also a Head of Product Strategy at Fiserv, and was previously involved in launching and scaling several startups.

As most subscribers to InnoLead already know, corporate culture is critical to innovation and growth; groups of people united in values, beliefs, and behaviors tend to have greater success accomplishing big things together.

Throughout my experience at both startups and large global corporations, I’ve found something both fascinating and obvious: most companies have two cultures (at least.)

The official culture is usually a “top-down” culture, imposed by charismatic leaders and often influenced by outside consultants. Unfortunately, this top-down culture can become corrosive, where rah-rah slogans and mission statements become annoying platitudes to the organization.

The second culture, or the “innovation culture,” belongs to your most innovative provocateurs — your change agents, your questioners, your creators. They typically share their own set of values, beliefs, and behaviors; they’ve developed a kinship around their culture of innovation, and this underground “counterculture” will thrive whether you like it our not.

Smart companies are learning to get closer to, and embrace, this innovation underground, allowing it to inform and influence the larger enterprise culture. Increasing the occurrence of these creative interactions across the enterprise can “infect” the broader culture, and have massive impact on value creation.

Here’s how, in four simple steps:

1. Make It Clear and Easy

The strategic goal here is simple: nurture creative interactions that can release the innovation DNA already present in your company.

Sounds easy, and it should be; unfortunately, most companies have a tendency to over-complicate this.

They create new organizational structures and hire innovation leadership. They focus on installing “idea management” software. They run challenges. They create innovation “labs” with requisite staffing and equipment. And they precede all those with research, budgeting, procurement, sign-offs, and training.

But nurturing creative interactions can be less expensive, more ubiquitous, more organic, and more immediate than any of the above.

And it starts with making it clear and easy.

Organizations must make it known that it is permitted and expected for employees to participate and contribute to finding and developing new innovative value.

Don’t worry about process or governance yet. Don’t worry about structure or systems.

Worry instead about communication, making it clear that new ideation and operational improvements are not only permitted but expected from all employees.

Managers should help employees incorporate new concepts and ideas into the normal work week.

In most cases, when employees bring about meaningful innovative value, they become energized. They have a new and exciting reason to come to work every day, and they are almost always able to find a way to pursue innovative initiatives without impacting their normal duties.

You can add governance and process later.

I’ve seen this first-hand, having worked at global enterprises that did it the right way, and some that did it the wrong way. When it’s not made clear that innovation is not only permitted but expected, it doesn’t have much of a shot at becoming cultural.

So make it clear and easy: Innovation is expected.

2. Bring ‘em Together

Once it has been communicated that innovation is not only permitted but expected, managers need to execute.

In other words, communication isn’t enough – managers have to follow through. (And remember: We’re going to do this without a lot of expense, governance, sign-offs, or process).

To do so, promote the formation of small groups – I recommend five to eight people – comprised of individuals with diverse perspectives.

There are literally no barriers to this strategy, and there are myriad ways to catalyze the formation of these small teams. For example, managers can work together across operating areas to create a couple of teams, which will set an example for others to follow. If that’s unlikely, consider a contest to form “Ten Teams in Ten Days,” with a group dinner as the reward and bonding event.

Some teams will self-start, because, quite frankly, your employees have been waiting for permission to do this. These self-selected teams may lack some of the diversity recommended above; however, managers can help ensure diversity by adding individuals with varied expertise, technical acumen, gender, seniority, etc.

One important note:

There are employees in every department known for their spirit of curiosity, inventive behavior, and technical agility. Their disruptiveness and persistence can be frustrating, but they are a tremendous asset at this stage. These employees are the core of the existing innovation subculture, and should be thoughtfully distributed across these small teams if possible. Their values and behaviors will influence a wider diversity of staffers, which will not only become more visible to senior leadership, but will help bind your innovators to the spine of the company.

3. Leave ‘em Alone

Don’t try to manage these teams. Please!

Borrow practices from Agile methodology instead. I won’t get into the details on this, but you’ll want the teams to have the freedom to develop value hypothesis and validation strategies; eventually, you’ll want them to develop prototypes and discuss them with customers.

The important point here is that you want these small teams to be self-governing. Let them meet on their own schedules (hopefully at least once a week) and give them the space to discover and develop ideas in their own way.

In my experience, granular ideas in these small teams will aggregate quickly into projects with big potential, given the diversity of perspectives in the room.

The discoveries also tend to focus on the company’s core strengths. This is obviously important, because externally-sourced or crowdsourced ideas can often be outside the company’s strategic roadmap; here, the diversity of the small teams should keep the ideation tied to the company’s core strengths.

A valuable side benefit of these small groups is that employees often bond in very important and long-term ways. Long after these small teams have had their impact, the employees involved will create bonds that they can leverage over the course of years.

And company veterans, when forced to brainstorm in close quarters with technology-proficient new arrivals, are often energized and reinvigorated by the process.

4. Bring in the Leaders

So, where are we?

First, we’ve clearly communicated that innovation is not only permitted but expected of all employees.

Second, we’ve allowed managers to catalyze small teams to facilitate that goal.

And third, we’ve given those teams the freedom and diversity to ideate together – they’re developing value hypotheses, validating strategies, developing prototypes, and even scheduling customer conversations.

This is precisely the activity we were seeking to stoke the innovation subculture that already exists in the company.

So how do we bring it back to the C-level, and make it more visible, to inform the company’s broader culture and messaging?

Simple: A “Team of Teams” gathering, which is another suggestion I’ve borrowed with success from Agile product development.

The CEO, COO, or other relevant business leaders must be present at the Team of Teams gathering, but – as was the case with all the steps mentioned above – you don’t want to overthink this.

This meeting should not be formal. You don’t need food, you don’t need a concert hall, you don’t need polish, and you definitely don’t need PowerPoint (PowerPoint should be banned from this process.)

Instead, you should host a one-hour, informal, stand-up meeting. Each team should provide a brief summary of insights, ideas, and activities, focusing on the one or two ideas that are most compelling.Each group should also highlight needs and dependencies they anticipate encountering as they pursue their work, which can enable other teams to get involved to support them.

The presence of the CEO, COO, or other appropriate business leaders is important, but – again – should not change the level of formality; the meeting should be loose and conversational. In some cases, a representative of the human resources team should also attend, as they’re focused on company culture and will find the dynamics here fascinating and valuable.

These C-level executives will find these “Team of Team” meetings to be highly revealing from a cultural perspective, and the gatherings will quickly be on their list of favorite meetings to attend.

It is here where they will experience the pulse, style, and dynamics of the innovation subculture that they must tap into to change the broader corporate culture. They will also gain visibility into new possibilities for the company, and connect the dots on opportunities they can explore with senior management.

Final Note on Perseverance

Please note that this entire process required no new tools, no budget review, no additional staffing, no heavy processes, and no special techniques.

It requires simply the will and good leadership to get these teams up and running.

But it’s important to understand that not all teams will succeed.

Some teams will die on the vine. Other teams will lack the creativity and operational experience, or will lack the chemistry necessary to ideate. Still others will be sucked into daily operations.

This is inevitable. So there must be a will to persevere.

This perseverance, not coincidentally, is exactly what creates high-achieving start-ups with extraordinary cultures of innovation. They have no choice … they must succeed.

You can too, if you embrace your underground, innovative counterculture, and allow it to inform and influence the larger enterprise culture.