Creating Innovation Cultures
  • Innovation

Creating Innovation Cultures

How collaboration between design and business mindsets builds innovative organizational cultures

Saturday 25 February 2017


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It is no great revelation to observe that established businesses find it more challenging to be innovative than start-ups and the new giants of the tech world do. So the challenge lies in identifying what it is that prevents them from adopting more creative practices.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that mature organizations have more to lose than new ones, so their risk appetite is significantly lower. It takes the likes of pharmaceutical companies, auto manufacturers and finance giants decades to build their brands and reputations, and their product lines will typically be highly profitable in their most mature lines; so changing practices and procedures, and investing in new and disruptive (for them) services or products can appear foolhardy or even suicidal to managers who are remunerated on current performance not future performance.

But organizations must continue to innovate or they will stagnate and wither – or be consumed by a more aggressive competitor. To understand what are the critical elements in enabling innovation to flourish in an organization I have been investigating, through the analysis of design patents, the role of collaboration in the creation of new designs as well as documenting how design firms innovate along with their client firms. Global design firms such as IDEO, Continuum, Frog Design, Lunar, and Eight Inc. to name just a few have gained global reputations for successfully pushing their clients’ boundaries, and it is evident that the organizational culture that they have fostered lies at the core of their capability to push innovative ideas into reality.

But what is organizational culture? Essentially it is a mixture of shared norms and values. The norms are the implicit traditions and approaches that act as guidelines for how people feel and behave; and the values are sometimes even less tangible, but highlight and dictate what is important and what is unacceptable. The ability of an organization to accomplish things is ultimately a combination of the explicit process and procedures they put in place and the culture that the workforce adopts to implement those processes. The former is important, and is also relatively easy to communicate as it can be codified in rules, diagrams and formulations; the latter is much more difficult to distil into identifiable, and then communicable, practices. Yet it is these less tangible elements that need to be lived and breathed by everyone in an organization for it to fully benefit from them.

Two fundamental factors in creating an innovative organizational culture are space and people. My research and teaching experience, particularly through running innovation programs at INSEAD in both Fontainebleau (France) and Singapore, is that by altering the space people work in has a dramatic impact on their mindsets and preparedness to embrace and deliver change. With this in mind, we created a new innovation space on INSEAD’s Singapore campus last year called the Creative Garage. The actual location of the room is nothing special, just another flat room near the new Leadership Centre on INSEAD’s Asia Campus. However, it has been designed to have a completely different feel and atmosphere to typical classrooms and breakout rooms. It is the antithesis of classrooms in business schools. This contrast is critical. It has been designed, in association with the design firm Eight Inc., to empower people to feel differently and embrace things differently to how they would in a more traditional learning environment.

The Creative Garage is a playful space, seemingly removed from the ‘flat’ spaces of a standard room. You can write on the walls, and easily reconfigure the layout. The power supply and movable storage/walls are infinitely changeable and the ceiling is decorated with odd artefacts brought by former students to remind them about the norms and values encouraged on that space. However, the design of the room was really not the main obstacle in creating it, it was much more the procedural issues regarding noise, cleaning, scheduling, inventory management, possible injury of users and so on that became the real barriers to its evolution. Creating and exploiting these spaces is not easy – and requires both top-level support in the organization and internal champions to take on the challenge.

The second critical element, and I believe even more important than the space, is mixing the types of people involved in the innovation work. We have been working with the Art Center College of Design (ACCD) in Pasadena, CA. This is the industrial design school that fills the employee intakes of Google, Facebook, Pixar, AirBnB, Uber, and the best large and small design firms.

I have been bringing about 10 ACCD students to join the innovation classes at INSEAD for the last 12 years – and their presence has a revolutionizing effect. Suddenly we have people who express themselves better through drawing than writing; that have an acute ability to question, imagine, and visualize ideas and scenarios. This opens new horizons for participants steeped in business process; and equally the designers start to appreciate the perspectives and benefits of business views too. Quickly shared values start to emerge, but there remains a tension between the two disciplines that is very easy to underestimate in its importance for the creative process.

Business people cannot, and should not try to, become designers through this process. The initial interactions can be wearing, and often require close coaching and specific tasks designed to ensure early collaborative wins which brings a trust and closeness, we call it creative team familiarity, that is essential for ideas to flow and flourish.

This mixing of design and business mindsets is the most powerful element we see in provoking innovative cultures emerging. When participants return to their organizations they cannot expect to have all the designer’s skills, but they can be open to that designer’s mindset, values, and practices, and encourage their teams to embrace those too.

Creating innovation cultures is a complex and nuanced process, but one that needs to be struggled through to unleash the innovative potential mature organizations need.

Manuel Sosa is the director of the new ‘Innovation by Design’ program. The next session wil be run on 3 May in Singapore.

Eight Inc. and INSEAD collaborate to create a new space for a new way to learn from Eight Inc. on Vimeo.

As one of the world’s leading and largest graduate business schools, INSEAD brings together people, cultures and ideas from around the world to change lives and to transform organisations.

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