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Innovation & Risk-Taking

Five Things I Know About Culture and Innovation

by B. Kim Barnes

This article was first published on LinkedIn on June 7, 2014

Innovative ceiling, innovative place

Photo © B. Kim Barnes

Culture involves values, norms, taboos, rituals, and mythology. If you want to have a culture that encourages innovation, consider each of them.

Values: Make innovation a genuine company value. Just claiming or advertising it as a value isn’t enough. Values are not aspirations. They are criteria for making important decisions. Make sure everyone in the organization is clear about the definition of innovation (creating some form of value from an idea that is new to you) and then use it to test ideas before you invest in them.

Norms: Communicate explicit norms that encourage crossing boundaries, constructive debate, free flow of information, feedback, diversity of thinking, and collaboration. Norms or ground rules help define what is fostered and promoted in the culture. They need to be clear, discussable, and modeled by key leaders.

Taboos: Don’t allow leaders or teams to discourage new ideas, to avoid critique, or to over-focus internally (not-invented-here syndrome). Breaking a taboo should set off the “organizational immune reaction” and shouldn’t be tolerated. The “meeting after the meeting” where people share what they really think about ideas is an innovation killer. Open discussions, unencumbered by political considerations, lead to better and more robust ideas.

Rituals: Celebrate intelligent risk-taking and the best failures as well as successes. Celebrate intelligent risk-taking decisions at the time they’re made, not after the outcome is known. Failure and success are celebrated after they happen. The best failures are the ones you learn the most from. They are likely to result from intelligent risk decisions and well-executed implementation that didn’t work out because of other factors. By celebrating them, you support continuous learning and improved risk decision-making.

Mythology: Circulate and retell stories about innovators in the organization who failed their way to success. Provide structures or processes that facilitate purposeful storytelling.Encourage admired senior leaders or contributors to share their innovation stories, especially stories that feature breaking boundaries, failure, recovery from failure, and positive innovation lessons learned.

Browse the Barnes & Conti Resource Library for more articles on risk-taking and innovation.

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