The lynchpin of innovation

by. Christopher Stevenson

There are lots of great case studies on innovators and innovative companies. Some tell the story of ongoing innovative developments and brand extensions of companies like Nike–stretching from the legendary waffle sole to its newer digital business. Others focus on the race to a specific objective, often something that seems impossible, like flying, walking on the moon, or powering the globe without fossil fuels. Still others explore the iconic genius, working tirelessly in his/her garage workshop to bring his/her dreams to life. All the stories are intriguing and start the creative juices flowing. Who hasn’t read about an innovative company and thought, how can I apply that to my work?

But there’s often something missing in articles and keynotes on sexy innovators. Cultural alignment.

Cultural alignment is, in my mind, the lynchpin to effective innovation, but it is all too often ignored. Sure, we hear that innovation has to be disciplined and that the process is often messy, resulting in more failures than successes, but disclipline and risk tolerance only occur within the framework of organizational culture. And it extends beyond whether or not an employee is willing to admit without fearing for his job that a project doesn’t work as planned. Innovation requires cross-functional teams in which all players have the same goals and do their damndest to achieve them. Communication lines are open. Team members openly communicate failures and obstacles to success and then work together to address the challenges. There will still be more failures than successes and the process will still be messy, but success is more likely to happen when everyone  is pointed in the same direction.

Now here’s the rub. This kind of alignment doesn’t happen as a fluke. It is intentional and led from the top.

Jay Rao and Joseph Weintraub, professors at Babson College, have identified six building blocks of an innovative culture.

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