An innovation culture only succeeds when it understands and nurtures the shared traits of the innovative mind. But hold onto your seats because an innovation culture might be messier and more unpredictable than you’re used to.
In my first post I described companies with the innovation version of “Deadman Walking”… apparently successful companies with floundering R&D groups and disappointing R&D portfolios. This post is the second in a four part series on aspects of R&D Leadership essential for an innovation crescendo: innovation strategy, innovation culture, metrics for innovation projects and the art of influence. The discussion in this post is about understanding the temperament of your R&D talent to build an innovation culture.
Culture is critical to Innovation Crescendo
Paradoxically many of the cultural values in a commercial organization are at odds with an ideal R&D innovation culture. Herein lies one of the greatest challenges for R&D Leadership: to convince senior executives to promote acceptance of an R&D innovation culture across the entire company.
For me, an innovation culture begins with a willingness to understand the R&D temperament. When I first joined an R&D group after my academic career, I often felt like a stranger in a strange land where everything happened in slow motion. In particular, I was struck that where R&D was led by a non-technical person, R&D collaboration around product and patent ideas appeared to be discouraged as a non-value-added activity more properly left to marketing to initiate. While there was no conscious sabotage of the “artistic/creative temperament” of real R&D talent, the end result was that the R&D culture did not nurture the core temperament of its R&D talent.
Many senior managers would be surprised to learn that their colleagues in R&D considered themselves artistic or creative. After all, what could be creative about mixing chemicals in a beaker or peering down a microscope? What could an R&D scientist be able to contribute to the taste of a mouth wash or the delivery mechanism for a drug that marketing hasn’t already got a handle on? Perhaps the best analogy I can think of is the culinary art of cooking. Consider the creative impulses of a great chef and you’ll be on the right road to understanding your R&D scientists.
Since most organizations are designed for short term execution, efficiency and control, rather than exploration and innovation, which are by nature fuzzy, messy and inefficient, an innovation culture can be an elusive goal. Company culture often inhibits innovation by discouraging the very people who are most likely to be innovative and by rewarding safe, mediocre results (e.g. an incremental line extension or a minor improvement to an existing product) rather than rewarding innovation activities like experimentation that may not pan out or the evaluation and testing of new disruptive technologies.
I have always remembered my early experiences as a scientist struggling to survive in a corporate environment and as I progressed in my career, increasingly sought out potential employers that were open to empowering R&D scientists to initiate and share new product concepts, encouraged follow-through with prototype development etc., broke down intra-company silos, and valued R&D as more than just a pair of hands. As my career progressed to Leadership of R&D I found that championing and implementing an Innovation culture not only lowered employee turn-over and drastically improved morale, but also resulted in an improved output of competitive new products.
© Dennis Nelson 2012