Achieving competitive advantage through your business’ innovation culture
The purpose of this article is to help your business compete more successfully by developing your company’s entrepreneurial employees and the innovation culture in which they operate. The article is based on the findings of one of the doctoral research themes in my PhD, and on my first hand experience as a commercial business growth practitioner.
Do you know who your high-potential, entrepreneurial employees are, and do you have a jointly agreed plan to help them with their professional development?
Employees who innovate are often seen as disruptors – sometimes positive, sometimes negative – because they act as a catalyst, mobilising the motivation and resources of the business and activating its management practices to achieve commercial outcomes. High performing, entrepreneurial innovators can be in any job role and at any stage of their career, but I have found that they often share some significant characteristics. Do you know anyone in your business who fits the description below pretty well?
- They see opportunity and identify ways to commercialise it, sometimes going to great lengths to get their ideas heard by the decision-maker(s).
- They keep their eye on the ball and drive their initiatives through.
- They are not too concerned about getting along with everybody involved in the innovation process, and do not pay too much attention to rules and structure, but will work with people and within the rules as necessary.
- They have a reasonably open view about what they want to happen and how, and will co-create with others. At the same time they have their own very clear, specific vision of what they want to achieve.
- They are usually positive, optimistic and sociable.
- They can get bored easily and frustrated when things they see as being obvious opportunities are not as visible to others.
If you don’t have anyone in your business who shows these characteristics in the round, it really is worth challenging yourself as a leader to ask yourself why not. I’m more than happy to chat this through with you in confidence. I’m only a call or an email away – firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you do have someone in your business who shows these behaviours and preferences, creating a personalised learning, development and coaching plan for them can really help them achieve their potential more fully at work, and the business to benefit from their skills and motivation. If you’d like help with this, do contact me direct at email@example.com and we can have a no obligation, completely confidential conversation about it. To ensure that your most promising entrepreneurial co-workers to bring their best innovation efforts to work, you will need to give them stretching but achievable challenge, intellectual stimulation, positive interactions and relationships with colleagues, along with appropriate resources, support and individual task autonomy.
Not everyone needs to innovate all of the time
Of course, you don’t need everyone in the business to innovate all of the time. Most of the time, it’s quite the opposite, especially when the focus needs to be on reliable implementation and compliance with areas such as health and safety requirements, or international standards and best practice (for example, landing a plane at Heathrow usually needs adherence to a certain level of protocol!).
But there is always room for every employee to contribute to shaping a better, more competitive business, regardless of their job role or strength of their personal entrepreneurial tendencies. The people who are sometimes best placed to suggest innovation for efficiency, customer service or product improvement are those who are on the front line day in, day out, doing the job.
The importance of innovation culture
My own PhD research, consistently with other studies, found that there is a statistically significant, positive relationship between how successfully entrepreneurial people are at work, and the different elements that make up a culture of innovation.
Businesses don’t innovate, individuals working either alone or in in teams do. Innovation strategies in businesses fail when they go straight to processes, events and systems and neglect to consider that a healthy, entrepreneurial culture needs individual people to have the capability to:
- Come up with novel ideas
- Develop them into something which could have commercial potential
- Work with others to make the ideas happen
- Demonstrate the courage and self-efficacy to stick their heads above the parapet and propose something that the business hasn’t tried before. This takes even more courage when the business is not visibly innovating and taking appropriate risks on a fairly regular basis.
How entrepreneurial people are at work is influenced to some extent by their perceptions of their work environment. When people innovate at work they need to use a wide range of self-management, creative problem solving, influencing and commercialisation skills to firstly have new ideas that have potential, then to develop them, get them supported by the business whilst often challenging the status quo in some way, and finally get them implemented successfully to achieve the results that the business is aiming for. This means there is often an element of personal risk for anyone who proposes an innovation.
Csikszentmihalyi (1999) identifies that creativity is only recognised and acknowledged within the social context that it exists, and depends not just on the individual creativity of those who have new ideas, but also on how receptive the surrounding organisation is to those new ideas.
This is highly relevant in the context of developing more entrepreneurial capability in your business. Because individuals operate within the ‘community’ of their employing organisation – i.e. your business – how receptive or not your business is perceived to be in response to your people’s creativity is a critical factor in tapping into the insights, ideas and engagement of your team.
When environments and structures are hospitable to innovation, people’s natural inventiveness and power skills can make almost anything happen.
– Rosabeth Moss Kanter.
What is an Innovation Culture?
Studies on creativity and innovation at work show that employees have conscious and unconscious perceptions of their employing organisation’s innovation culture.
Your innovation culture is the work environment that you, as the leader, cultivate in order to nurture fresh, creative thinking and its application. Businesses that value a culture of innovation develop and support the opportunity for anyone in, or connected with the business to have and share ideas.
Your Top Three Focus Areas for a more Entrepreneurial Business
If you want to focus on just three aspects of Innovation Culture in your business to improve overall commercial performance, Dynamism, Idea Proliferation and Idea Support are the ones to go for. My study of people in industry across a wide range of sectors found that these have the strongest correlation with individual entrepreneurial performance of people at work. A low presence in any of these three is very likely to frustrate your more entrepreneurial employees.
- Dynamism is all about making things happen, getting things done, keeping up with the industry you’re in, being responsive to the world around you.
- Idea Proliferation is the extent to which people are perceived as having creative ideas and varied perspectives towards their work. It also refers to the level of debates encouraged in the business.
- Idea Support is the extent to which employees are encouraged to put forward ideas and suggest improvements. It also focuses on how positively the business responds to those ideas, whether or not a decision is made to act on them.
Taking your Business to the Next Level – Would your Team answer ‘Yes’ to these Questions?
If you’re really serious about taking your business to the next level and leveraging the ideas, skills and abilities of your people, you will also work on making sure that your teams’ experience of each of the following aspects of Innovation Culture is positive.
If asked, would each of your employees answer a resounding ‘Yes!’ to each of these questions?
Commitment: do your employees perceive their colleagues (i.e. the other employees around them!) to be committed to the business’ goals and activities, and find their work meaningful, stimulating and engaging?
Freedom: do your employees feel that they have opportunities to make their own decisions when appropriate, seek information, and show initiative? Some businesses also call this ‘empowerment.’
Risk Taking: do your employees feel that the business is up for taking appropriate risks, and for experimenting and trying new ways of working?
Positive Relationships: do your employees feel that, overall, they have good relationships with their colleagues, and that there is are no politics or personal conflicts?
Shared View: do your employees feel that communications and discussions are open, that there is no ‘them and us’, and that people in the business have a sense of shared purpose?
Recognition: do your employees feel that they are fairly rewarded and acknowledged for their contribution to the business?
Pressure: do your employees feel positive, motivational pressure rather than negative stress and overwhelm at work? Of course, how this is perceived is different for everyone. What might cause me significant anxiety might be something that you take in your stride, and vice versa.
Playfulness: do your employees feel that, as well as working hard, they can often have fun at work, that people share a sense of humour, and that work can be enjoyable?
Check out The Dolphin Index
Each of these components, or ‘dimensions’ above comes from a fantastic tool called The Dolphin Index. The Dolphin Index is an online employee survey, designed specifically for assessing the innovation climate of your business, so that you can clearly see which levers you need to pull to make your business more dynamic, innovative and successful.
I have used the Dolphin Index myself in a business context, and also carried out a critical literature review of a number of creative climate tools as part of my doctoral research. I studied literally scores of articles, studies and texts on the subject of innovation culture in businesses, and was able to map each key theme I encountered to the dimensions of the Dolphin Index. It really is a comprehensive tool. The Dolphin Index is also used by recognised institutions such as the Open University (e.g. as part of the learning for the Creativity, Innovation and Change MBA module until that course was recently removed), as well as some leading businesses such as Nestle.
Just to be super clear – I have no commercial affiliation with The Dolphin Index, this is just a genuinely glowing recommendation based on my direct experience of using it in business and in my extensive research!
Wot, So Wot and Wot Next?
Hopefully this article has helped you to think about entrepreneurial thinking, innovation, people, ideas and culture in your business.
Ideas are your competitive currency. Organisations and businesses don’t have ideas, people do. Ideas are the root of what differentiates your business from your competition.
If you want people to share their ideas and bring their full talents and insights to work, they need to feel confident that your business is a positive and supportive place in which to do so.
Honestly considering how your employees would respond to the questions above – and even better asking them direct, perhaps using the Dolphin Index survey, will give you a clear steer on where you can best invest your improvement focus.
Let’s discuss how I can help
If this article resonated with you in any way, and you’d like a more in depth, personalised experience, and the opportunity to work with me one-to-one, come and join my full 12 week Idea Time coaching programme which starts on 21 January 2019. It’s going to be amazing! Click here for more info and to join.
Alternatively, we could discuss a customised consultancy plan for your business. As always, you know where I am if you’ve any questions, or would like any help. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s take your business, your people and your innovation to the next level.