Fostering a Culture of Innovation

Something rings true about the age old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If a process is working, why change it, right? Wrong! As Bob Dylan rightly said: “The times they are a-changin’.” Our world is continually evolving and long-standing methodologies and techniques don’t necessarily provide the benefit that they once did. Similarly, the world of organisational strategy is shifting. This shift calls for innovation which will allow businesses to retain their competitive advantage.

Innovation requires support

In response to my last post, “The best methodology is freedom“, I have had a number of questions around how a culture of freedom and innovation can be established. There is little merit in compiling a rulebook for promoting such behaviour. I don’t want to get into the dos and don’ts for embedding it. That would be counter-productive. I’d be advocating freedom and innovation and then prescribing a one best way to achieve it.

I believe that a guideline for creating a culture of creativity and innovation is less important than the outcome. What’s important is how an analyst is supported in being innovative. In this way, a unique structure can be tailored to underpin a culture of innovation, rather than having the structure dictated.

An environment that lends itself to innovation is one where analysts not only feel comfortable putting forward creative suggestions, but are encouraged to do so. New ideas should never be frowned upon or laughed at; no matter how trivial or how extreme. In fact, they should be celebrated and rewarded.

It is also important that analysts receive appropriate feedback from colleagues. If an idea is not going to fly the analyst needs to understand why. Our organisation has recently introduced ‘innovation boards’ where new ideas can be noted and become visible to all. This opens the door for questions and feedback from colleagues.

The natural tension between prescription and innovation

My previous post talked about methodology and freedom and how innovation is key to an analyst’s job. I strongly believe that fewer constraints bring greater innovation. This may seem obvious, but how often is it considered when guidelines are being compiled? Do the guidelines at your workplace offer leeway? If my project’s office wasn’t flexible in its project governance, there would be no room for innovation. If it were mandatory to complete documents x, y and z for each project and the sections within these documents were inflexible, not only would I struggle to keep the content relevant, but there’d also be no encouragement to innovate.

I’m not advocating lawlessness, but I am saying that too much structure has the ability to cripple innovation. There is a happy medium where structure and innovation can live together peacefully – even support each other. I believe that a good, flexible structure helps guide the direction of innovative thinking. If I know that risk mitigation method A, which forms part of the project structure, has proven to reduce the likelihood of project failure, I may want to consider incorporating this, or a similar, method into my thinking.

With great innovation comes risk

Our company has recently agreed to trial an ‘incubator’ approach. This is an idea (I believe first introduced by Atlassian), where an analyst, or a group of analysts, set aside time to come up with innovative concepts. These ideas don’t necessarily need to relate to analysis, but could be geared towards improving the work environment or simplifying existing processes.

An incubator idea is proposed to management who approve the concept. At this point extensive detail is not required. The analyst takes this concept away and spends time working out the detail. Ultimately, the proposal is presented back to colleagues at a team meeting for peer review. If the findings show that the idea will add value, it is implemented. Our company understands that while this approach can bring great innovation, it also bears an element of risk. Not all concepts will provide a benefit, costing the company valuable analyst time.

If you want innovation, you need to accept that it goes hand in hand with a level of risk. To an extent, this risk can be reduced by allowing senior analysts to cast their eyes over the innovative ideas. Due to past learnings, senior analysts may be in a better position to spot potential risks by applying some ‘seen before‘ logic. I accept that this is not a fool proof technique. In fact, it has a potential to damage the process, but it does provide a simple gateway for eliminating ideas where likely failure is obvious from the onset.

Another method is to ensure that analysts are not afraid to verbalise their thinking to as many people as possible. Sharing ideas with numerous people before committing to a design can reduce the risk of investing copious amounts of time in an idea that is likely to fail. The more people that challenge a solution, the more robust it is likely to become. Peer-reviews, wireframes, user group testing or process walkthroughs are some suggestions as to how these ideas might be presented to potential audiences.

The best approach to innovation is an innovative one

Creating a culture of innovation is an innovation in itself. We’ve worked hard recently to improve our ability to innovate within my organisation – incubators, innovation boards and the like are relatively new and we’re beginning to reap the rewards. I am given the time, space and support to drive innovation at my workplace.

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Comments

  1. Duane Banks says

    Michael, then what would management do?

    Innovation is a critical component of any successful venture, but discipline and structure are equally critical. As was said in the article, there is a fine line between structure and innovation.

    Nik, very nice follow-up!

    Though it sounds like you understand that fine line, you seem to have a preference for innovation. Fewer constraints may certainly bring greater innovation, at least in some (perhaps many) situations. However, in other situations, more constraints may also lead to greater innovation, specifically in the case of younger BAs who tend to need more structure.

    And though an experienced BA may feel the need for less structure, the agile BA (regardless of age or experience) will find a way to innovate, even in a rigid environment.

    Ideally, structure and innovation will feed off one another, as in the yin-yang.

    • Hi Duane,

      Thanks for the reply. I’m not entirely sure what you meant by “what would management do?”.

      You mention structure and discipline being critical to success. I actually think failure is more critical than either discipline or structure, and to that end management should let things fail. It is often the things that seem most unlikely that can cause the most value.

      Atlassian was mentioned in the article – they do FedEx roughly once ever three months I’m told, so lets go with that: four days a year.

      For four days a year you can let people be completely creative with complete risk of failure in a spectacular crash and burn kind of way. Even if nothing is accomplished (tangibly) employee satisfaction goes up dramatically when they feel they have the chance to make a difference, especially if outside the realm of normal approved work. Autonomy and empowerment have been shown to be two of the most effective ways to drive an employee’s commitment to an organisation.

      Four days a year, even if nothing were to be delivered in terms of tangible artefacts seems an awfully small cost for increasing an employees happiness the other 226 working days of the year.

      Facebook has signs up around their office that read “fail harder”. Failure isn’t something to be scared of, it’s something to see as a stone on the path to epic success.

      Constantly trying to avoid failure at all costs will result in mediocrity as best, and ironically, drastically increases the chances of complete failure.

      Companies that spend too much energy focusing on playing it safe sit idly by whilst their competitors are out there being bold and changing what the landscape looks like.

      Michael

      • Duane Banks says

        Michael,

        If analysts weren’t required to first get approval from management for the initial concept, what would management do? Meaning they would have nothing to do. Ok, bad joke.

        I’ve preached failure to my kids! No failure, no success. That said, failure without structure is dangerous. When a toddler is learning to walk (via the “failure” of fallng), the conscientious parent moves obstacles from its path to avoid injury. The parent provdes the safty of structure.

        Come to think of it, though failure and innovation are two separate concepts, they are much more alike than different. Nik could have easily contrasted structure with failure instead of with innovation. But then he would have an to title his article Fostering the Culture of Failure. Hey! Maybe I just gave him the topic for his next article LOL.

    • Nik Gebhard says

      Hi Duane,

      Thank you for your comments. I agree with you entirely. By saying “There is a happy medium where structure and innovation can live together peacefully – even support each other”, I am talking about exactly this.

      If I think of a specific example (I’m sure I’ve seen one before), I’ll post it here.

      Best Regards
      Nik

  2. Michelle Swoboda says

    Nik, your post made me feel like I am not the only one who thinks this way. In my previous BA role – new ideas were welcomed and we had a format in which to submit them. They were reviewed by our bosses immediately and prioritized and taken to the business for sponsorship. This was amazing.
    In my current role, innovation is encouraged but by those creating the new products within the company. The only innovation I have seen demonstrated is to allow the BAs to complete their work with their ideas and templates, but the completed version must conform to the company standard. This does give me the freedom to work with my own documentation style and it is easily converted later.

    • Nik Gebhard says

      Hi Michelle,

      Many thanks for your comments and I’m glad you think the same way. This is a great example of how processes for innovation can be very different, yet still create a great culture of innovation. It shows us that it’s not so much about the process, but more about the desired outcome.

      Thank you for sharing!

      Best Regards
      Nik

  3. I’d be curious to see what would happen over a longer time frame if analysts weren’t required to first get approval from management for the initial concept.

    If a certain portion of a staff members time is allocated to incubator projects why not let them go wild and present back to the team things that the management may not have approved? You might find they add value, and you have a wider range of ideas being presented back to the team for peer review. It’s a bit too easy for management to not see the true value of something that doesn’t have much detail yet.

    To truly foster innovation, let creative people be creative without being blocked through the requirement to get approval first.

    • Nik Gebhard says

      Hi Michael,

      Thank you for the comment.

      I believe that a good manager has an open mind. Placing them as ‘gatekeepers’ should not hamper innovation, but rather spur it on. Running an idea (albeit a conceptual one) via management first must create buy-in from them – rather than any negative hold back.

      Their aim is not to shoot down ideas based on assumptions, but rather to assess them based on fact. If they can factually back up their reason for declining an idea, then this may save an individual much frustration.

      Regards
      Nik

  4. Susan Reis says

    Really interesting and valuable insights Nik.

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