Do You Have an Innovative HR Culture? What If You Don’t?

By Chris Havrilla

What really is an "innovation culture"? The Wall Street Journal and the Harvard Business Review are telling your leaders to “use their culture” to improve talent management and drive innovation. Yet, culture can be like the Supreme Court justice who stated, “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” Everyone thinks they know their company culture and can show it with videos, stories, and awards, but is that really your culture or just marketing hype? And does it really match the “down in the trenches” work and struggle in your organization? Probably not. That is a real problem for talent management — how can you define and own your real culture so that you can recruit, develop, and manage talent who will flourish in it? And, most importantly for this post, how do you innovate when your culture may not be conducive to innovation? Just saying it doesn’t make it real or happen.

A 2015 Deloitte study found that 83 percent of millennials are actively engaged when they believe an organization fosters an inclusive culture. So, if you want to attract millennials, you should promote an inclusive and innovative culture, right? The key word here is promote, as though culture is just a marketing exercise. You cannot dictate culture or simply create a culture brand to market to job candidates. Glassdoor reports that 70 percent of people look at reviews before they make career decisions. So regardless of what you think your culture ought to be, candidates will find out what it really is. This is-ought paradox states that leaders often confuse what ought to be, with what reality is.

What Is Your Culture… Now?

I think it is important to note that the culture in most organizations — whether they realize and accept it, or not yet — is starting to change and evolve. With the demographics of the workforce changing dramatically over the next several years, as well as the tremendous shifts in technology, business models, and competitive forces impacting the way we work and how work is done — the demands and expectations will force massive change. But understanding current state, as well as where you want to be in the future, is key in understanding how to attract and retain staff that fit now. And, how to drive innovation in your culture and organization overall now to meet the changing demands of your workforce and customers.

So, the first move is to identify your culture. While there are dozens of components that make up your culture, there are four generic organization cultures that act as a short hand for discussing your organization’s style and strengths. The four cultures include:

  1. Command and Control — This is a top-down centralized, hierarchical culture that was developed by the military. It focuses decision making on leadership, requires loyalty, standardization, and quick reporting of outcomes and metrics back to leaders to allow them to control the company. Type A individuals who like power and promotion flourish in this culture.
  2. Committee and Compromise — This  is a top-down decentralized culture that was developed by government/public institutions. It allows multiple functional leaders with conflicting goals to avoid risk by utilizing bureaucracy to find common ground and compromise to share resources. People with political and people skills flourish in this culture.
  3. Consensus and Coordination — This is a bottom-up centralized culture that was developed by professionals (e.g. law, medicine). It is a project-oriented approach that allows multiple experts with a common profession to share resources and coordinate their activity to the common good. The experts form a governing council and then set priorities and guidelines within which each expert runs his own team. Team oriented people who like project work, autonomy, and immediate rewards flourish in this culture.
  4. Commitment and Collaboration — This is a bottom-up decentralized culture that was developed by public organizations (e.g. church, non-profits). It works with groups who share a vision and goals that require concerted effort and team work. They are often led by a charismatic individual who leads by example and compelling vision. People with strong vision, mission, and values who like inclusive teamwork flourish in this culture.

Overcome Inherent Culture Conflicts

Identifying your generic culture is only a first step. It helps to focus discussions about your culture strengths and recruiting profiles to identify candidates with the best fit. This will also help to better identify and align parts of the organization that are creating cultural conflicts. You may find multiple conflicts in your cultural descriptions (which is normal) because your culture may be in conflict — driving many organizational headaches. You can reduce these underlying by aligning the components of your culture. It is important to note, you cannot quickly change or implement a culture. You already have one and your people will fiercely protect it. Start with awareness, building a common understanding and vocabulary. Once you have a shared understanding, focus on open, frequent, and consistent internal and external communication that reinforces your culture and your organizational journey, rather than creates misrepresentation, distraction, confusion, and distrust in employees and candidates.

Innovation Culture

Okay, we know who we are — now how do we get there? Is there an innovation culture required to effectively nurture innovation? Yes and no. Yes, effective innovation teams need a certain autonomy and authority. No, you do not have to change your entire organizational culture to nurture innovation.

That is why many companies, without a culture conducive to innovation, create innovation labs, skunkworks, research departments, and other specific innovation areas that are separated from the organization. These innovation departments likely (and often necessarily) operate under a very different atmosphere than your core culture. It is usually much faster paced, creative, team-focused, and stressful. They often develop a Commitment and Collaboration culture.

Full time innovation departments need to be secluded from the rest of the organization because of their different culture. But, what about internal performance improvement teams that undertake innovations? How do they achieve this same autonomy and authority within your dominant organization culture? Simple, you give them a one-time free pass for the project period. When the project is approved, the executive team and executive champion set ground rules that give temporary innovation teams special privileges and practices. This may sound easy, but it is a huge hurdle for most teams. Their early team forming, storming, and norming stages will focus on learning how to work differently in their innovation team than in their everyday role.

Innovation requires diverse teams that are customer focused to develop new solutions that are desirable (customer’s want/need), feasible (can work in your organization), and viable (that will make a profit or self-fund). The innovation culture shares many of the norms of a Commitment and Collaboration culture. More importantly, innovation teams need to develop an innovation mindset that:

  • Focuses on customer-centric goals
  • Listens deeply to the issues and drivers of problems
  • Values diverse insights for new answers
  • Simplifies ideas to their core value
  • Excels beyond the average, going for breakthroughs
  • Shows tangible examples, not just telling
  • Thrifty to build only what you need
  • Courageous to get out of your comfort zone
  • Agile, experimental, and persistent
  • Develops pragmatic, profitable innovations

Leadership is instrumental in encouraging, supporting, protecting, and rewarding this mindset and actions.  Leaders need to value the power of nurturing this mindset or they will be deeply disappointed in their innovation efforts. The expedient answer is to hire an innovation leader as a member of the executive team who can lead innovation teams as well as coach fellow leaders (who may find innovation frustrating and stressful) in the innovation process, techniques, and practices, while providing air cover from the rest of the organization. The staff who participate in these internal innovation projects can be initially only part time (5-10 hours a week for 12 weeks), while continuing to do their full-time regular job. But it is how you start shifting your workforce and operating model from the traditional linear, hierarchical structures to cross-functional, collaborative, agile work teams that support more innovative and open cultures — and ultimately even the cross-enterprise teams we may see in the future.

Can your organization nurture "innovation rebels” while staying true to or methodically begin to shift (if this is the goal) your core culture? Try it if you haven’t already and share your stories with us of innovation culture successes and lessons learned by using #TalentTransformed on social media.

This is the second article in a two-part series by Chris Havrilla. Read the first article What Is HR Innovation? Beyond the Buzzword.

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