Innovation Tells

12 Signs Innovation is Alive and Kicking in Your Culture

by Drew Marshall

Innovation TellsWhat are tells? A tell is an unwitting signal made by a player in a poker game. It is any clue, habit, behavior, or physical reaction that gives other players more information about your hand. Organizations have tells, too, signs, patterns, and behaviors that indicate what is going on across and within the organization without any explicit announcement. Reading tells is an essential skill for anyone looking to have a positive impact on an organization. Knowing how to read innovation tells can give you an idea of how well-disposed your organization is – or isn’t – to achieving its innovation goals.

Why are tells important?

If we don’t learn how to read our organizations, we may try to improve aspects of our organizations that already work well, and we may completely overlook those areas that require the greatest level of attention and effort.

1. Strategy matters

  • Do people in your organization know what not to do? For an enterprise to unify around innovation, there must be strategic congruence. The universe is filled with good ideas, but attempting to execute them all is to head down the primrose path to failure. To be effective, there must be congruence between the overarching strategy of an organization and the focus of an organization’s innovation efforts. Above all, the strategy should help people in the organization make wise choices about where and how to spend their time. Without a strategy that supports the corporate intent and innovation goals, an organization’s plans and its allocation of resources will fall out of alignment. The odds of achieving its most critical objectives approach zero.

2. Everything is human-centric

  • With a strategy in place that provides a clear indication of the boundaries in which people should play, the next tell to look for is how well your organization supports its people. People are at the heart of an innovation-focused organization. They will identify the challenges that will drive you forward. A good sign is that employees bring the most pressing client needs to the table for consideration. They are also the ones who will explore those needs and develop key insights, which will become the fodder for deeper exploration, ideation, design, and development. If people are not visible in your innovation processes, a key opportunity for success is being squandered.

3. Revolution starts anywhere

  • Ownership of issues is second nature in an innovation-capable enterprise. One client once remarked that in his organization, the mantra was, “You touch it, you own it.” He also noted that “if you avoid it, you’re avoided.” New ideas are the lifeblood of innovation: those organizations that understand that ideas can come from anywhere are best able to capitalize on them. Look for people stepping out of their defined roles to add more value. This means that anyone may be a source for a good idea, a keen insight into the customer experience, or may provide the critical component that makes a solution sing. A successful organization seeks innovation from all its members. If you look only to the visibly “creative,” you’ll miss the value of many.

4. Risk is embraced

  • “A profession that never has accidents is unlikely to be serving its country effectively.” – Sir Alfred Pugsley
  • Innovation demands the systematic introduction of change into inherently stable systems. With that comes a need to bear a certain amount of risk. An innovation-capable organization is ready to risk its capital and time in the pursuit of breakthrough goals. To be risk-ready does not mean that an organization focused on innovation is cavalier. Through their capacity for risk, an organization is able to innovate because it understands that progress requires being open to the unknown. The risk-averse organization is destined to remain safe, for a time; without any risk, however, no growth occurs and such organizations wither and die.

5. Knowledge is quickly acquired

  • Being intellectually curious is not only a good habit to form, it is a must for the innovation-focused enterprise. If you want to know if your organization is ready to innovate, can you see it rapidly consume new information from your market and your clients, sort it, organize it, and put it to use? Now, more than ever, competing requires that your organization must be able to source as quickly as possible the information it needs to survive. Capturing and reusing data, transforming that data into information by applying it to internal structures, and turning it into knowledge by successfully applying it to key concerns are the markers of the truly innovative organization.

6. Everyone collaborates

  • How knowledge is used across the enterprise matters greatly, too. Innovation-capable organizations demonstrate their ability to collaborate effectively when individuals and groups engage one another in the presence of many others doing the same using the available knowledge to greater purpose. Effective collaboration comes from recognizing that what is happening within one group is being matched by other groups across the enterprise, regardless of whether they know the specifics of what each is doing. The expectation of sharing, mutual dialogue, and involvement is a given. Without effective collaboration, the cross-pollination required for innovation is absent.

7. Creativity is both collective and individual

  • For too long, creativity has been treated as a precious commodity. Counterpointing this perspective is the more robust thinking of someone like Sir Ken Robinson, who in his book The Element notes that we are all inherently creative. Something seems to drive it out of us over time; he blames education. While this may be a cause, it is likely not the only one. In the innovation-capable organization, everyone understands that they have to bring their creativity to bear on the issues of the day. Individual creativity can be amplified by the additional creativity of those around us (see Everyone collaborates above). Look for ideas to spread like wildfire and to be embraced, not crushed, by peers.

8. Commitment to quality

  • An innovation-capable organization understands that quality is an essential ingredient in success. Without a commitment to quality outcomes, no matter how bright and shiny the ideas produced are, they’ll be found wanting by customers who have a less than shining experience when ideas are deployed. Look for processes of control when ideas are converted from concept to production. An organization that cares about the transition from one state to the other understands that the experience of an innovation’s quality can have as much impact on its success as the solution itself.

9. Viability trumps volume

  • When an organization embraces risk—a necessary trait to be considered innovation-capable—it also must consider the viability of its outputs. Viability is a key constraint in the pursuit of innovative solutions to clients’ needs. It determines what will become a part of the organization’s sustainable business model. When organizations focus on volume, this usually means they’re focusing on the front end of innovation—the ideation phase—to the detriment of capability or capacity for bringing that volume of ideas to market, and they have little understanding of how to choose the right ideas to implement. A key tell in this area is a clear set of objectives for winnowing down the idea pool to a select few.

10. Preview via prototyping

  • Organizations that understand that they won’t get it right the first time, every time, also understand that the path to success may require multiple steps. The innovation-capable organization embraces prototyping in order to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. It recognizes that it must integrate the needs of the users with the requirements of the business. To do that, the organization previews the solutions it develops (or parts of those solutions) as a path to learning. Prototyping may provide the proof of concept necessary to attract the funding integral to success. It encourages active participation among users, producers, and stakeholders, and enables a more valuable output for the user. It also addresses key innovation measures: the reduction of development costs and the reduction of the cycle time to launch.

11. Communication is multi-channel

  • Communication is the process by which an organization knits itself together, aligns its intent with its action, and coordinates the efforts of its members. An innovation-capable organization constantly communicates with itself, with its customers, and with the marketplace. It practices a continuous process of calibrating mental models with systems and processes so that the implementation of innovation efforts joins up and is not fractured (or fractious). Communication across multiple channels, face-to-face, email, phone, etc., are all folded into an ongoing stream of organizational consciousness. If communication is one way or mono-channeled, the likelihood of innovation is slim to none.

12. Resilience is abundant

  • Lastly, the innovation-capable organization bounces back from its mistakes and its outright failures. It never gives up, and never surrenders; even if it might shift tactics and approach, it seeks to deliver on its intent. Mistakes are tolerated (once, but rarely repeatedly). This resilience carries over into all aspects of organizational life.

These dozen elements to look for can tell you if an organization is ready to innovate. Where does yours succeed? Where does it fall short? What are you going to do about it? Building an innovation culture requires one additional element: the will to do something new (here’s your baker’s element.)

What will you do?

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Drew MarshallAndrew [Drew] Marshall is the Principal of Primed Associates, LLC, a consulting firm based in Princeton Junction, New Jersey focused on improving the culture of innovation within their clients.

Drew Marshall




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