Organizational culture is getting a lot of attention recently, as economic growth is tougher to come by and company profits even harder to generate. Where efficiency, productivity, and process used to get the attention of management gurus, the general impression is that those things aren’t sexy anymore, and that if you can create the “right culture” at your organization, it will be able to grow by leaps and bounds, leap tall buildings and take the market by storm, etc.
Culture’s definition is often a bit diffuse, but for the sake of argument we’ll use this: The atmospheric environment within an organization created by the Senior executive and mirrored down the ladder to the rank and file, reflective of a set of values and preferences, and a vision conferred onto individual staff interactions that bleeds into their products and services and suffuses the brand. True, that still leaves much room for interpretation, but it gives you an idea of what the majority of workers are going for.
But culture goes deeper in some cases than others. In almost all cases, it really starts at the top, with a communicated vision for what that senior executive wants that company to be, day in and day out. That vision is reflected in many aspects of daily life within the organization, from the physical plant layout, furnishings and decor, down to the paint on the walls in some cases, to the tone of the Employee Manual (or if there even IS one), memos and e-mails, the recording on the voice mail at the front desk, to how customer services treats customers, and in nearly every other aspect of life in that hive every day. What holidays they celebrate and how many, how vacation time is viewed, how the management structure is coached, trained and their performance assessed are key to defining that corporation’s culture.
But how does that culture affect the organization’s ability to innovate?
I think it has the most to do with a sense of freedom borne of respect for the employees’ ability to work together for a common goal. That ability is derived through common and communal trust and a sense of obligation to the mission and to their co-workers. If you are trusted by your peers, and managers, and you trust your subordinates and direct reports to do the best they can all the time, to strive for continual improvement, and to work as hard as necessary to adhere to the goals and needs of the company as a whole, the table has been properly set to drive innovation around the current product or service offering, as part of that constant curiosity and need to improve the status quo.
On the flip side, if management is constantly looking over the shoulder of direct reports, codifying each action and driving their efforts down a narrowly defined group of managed behaviors, that trust in and growth of their abilities doesn’t have much “elbow room” alongside the rest of the required actions, and innovation rarely occurs – they’re having too much trouble just getting through the day.
Innovation comes from many quarters and from many unexpected directions, but somewhere down the line, it really stems from the freedom to be curious, to be able to find answers to the question “What if . . .?” If the answers to that question are never sought because there’s no value to exposing the answer, innovation will have a hard time taking hold and the organization won’t be able to nurture that spark into a meaningful flame of business brilliance.
Don’t let your need for profitability smother creativity and innovation – five hours “wasted” finding out about a certain idea could be the best investment you ever make.