Friday, April 1, 2011

Innovation "Culture": Execution is more Important than Aspirations

Innovation Culture: we all want to be like Apple, or IDEO, Google, or W.L. Gore. As if it were that easy! No one wants to be slow, customer-indifferent, or uncreative, but the sad truth is that too many are! Why? How can it be that we all want something so badly, and yet so few achieve it?

My belief is that the problem starts with the very word "culture." It rolls off the tongue so easily, in nearly any language. When you use the word "culture", especially in relation to innovation, everyone nods in agreement -- it's an "easy sell," the universal panacea. Yet, the real problem is that the word "culture"means everything to everyone. It is so mysterious that none of us have any idea of what the other really means when they use the term, but we don't really care. We are all under the spell of becoming Apple, without questioning what it takes to get there.

For this reason, I truly hate the word "culture", and try to forbid its use in my classes. My former Driving Strategic Innovation program colleague Harvard Professor Rebecca Henderson once called "culture: an excuse for thinking." I agree! Instead, I believe that the word "culture" should describe "how we do things around here," or essentially typical group behavior. If that is true, then I also believe that such behavior is the outcome of managerial choices made within five realms:

  1. the articulation of strategic vision (which should be both precise & liberating)

  2. the talent & skills that are necessary to achieve this vision

  3. the best way to organize our talent & skills to achieve our vision

  4. the processes that we can employ to give our talent a higher probability of success, and

  5. the values, measures & rewards by which we inspire, evaluate and compensate our talent.

Almost all managerial choice involves one of these five realms and together they determine how our people behave --i.e, they determine our "culture." The model was first proposed by my former IMD-colleague, Jay Galbraith, and is best represented by his star model (shown above). I think of the star as a sort of "steering" device. By "tuning" any of the five "levers" I can activate motion in my organization in one direction or another. To really steer the organization in the direction that I wish, I need to consider "tuning" all of them, and in such a way (and at the same time) -- alignment -- that the organization moves in the direction, and at the speed, that we aspire. This is what culture should be about. The conscious and thoughtful result of managerial choices; not mystery!

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