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Creating a Climate for Innovation

Rapid technological change, increasing global competition, and economic uncertainty all contribute to companies’ increasing interest in creativity and innovation. However, it is very difficult to generate high quality innovation and see it through to implementation.

One way leaders can increase innovation effectiveness and efficiency is by creating a climate of creativity, or a place where new ideas are invented and applicable innovation results.

Research has shown that climate is an effective predictor of creative performance and, further, that creative people are especially influenced by climate.

Here are the ten most important factors.

1. Challenging Work: Making the work challenging means designing jobs and tasks that are demanding, complex, and interesting; yet, they must not be overly taxing or unduly overwhelming. Challenging jobs are typically characterised by skill variety, autonomy, ambiguity and frequent changes. Leaders can influence this factor through job design by injecting enough complexity and variety into the job to keep things interesting and by setting challenging goals for the workgroup.

2. Intellectual Stimulation: Creativity flourishes when open and honest debate is encouraged. Ideas are generated and grow in work environments where meaningful exchanges take place around significant issues and ideas.

3. Positive Interpersonal Cohesion: Creativity and innovation are more likely to be found in climates where employees perceive a sense of togetherness and cohesion and an absence of emotional conflict. Collectivistic cultures where employees identify more as team members working toward shared goals also foster greater positive interpersonal cohesion.

4. Trust & Safety: Research and practice clearly show that a climate of trust and safety facilitates creative performance. Global innovation expert Charles Day says that “the fuel of trust is transparency.” Transparency doesn’t necessarily mean telling everyone everything, but it does mean being as open as possible with employees.

5. Flexibility & Risk-Taking: Encouraging flexibility and risk-taking means being comfortable with the uncertainty that comes along with creative work. Organisations that embrace the knowledge gained from errors have a competitive advantage over those that ignore or punish failure. IDEO, the innovation powerhouse, shows support for risk-taking in a company slogan, “Fail often to succeed sooner.”

6. Autonomy: Providing employees with autonomy in doing their jobs is another important aspect of a creative climate. Decades of research on innovation clearly demonstrates that innovators prefer the freedom to be self-directed and independent. Today, large corporations (e.g., IBM, Medtronic, Unilever) are creating so-called “corporate garages” allowing innovators autonomy in their work while still enabling them to draw on the overall resources of the organisation.

7. Mission Clarity: Academic and applied research clearly shows the importance of setting forth a clear mission and engaging innovators in that endeavour. Mission clarity requires leaders to guide ‘problem identification’ and set the context for innovation. Leaders need to ensure that innovators are given a clear, compelling and aspirational mission that challenges the mind and engages the heart.

8. Commercial Emphasis: Promoting a strong balance of practicality and originality is another important aspect to creating a climate for innovation. A solution that is original but not relevant or effective is of little use to the organisation.

9. Resources: Just as innovation is a risky endeavour, it can also be costly. Innovators need to perceive that the organisation is willing to invest the time and money necessary to support innovation and implementation of these efforts. Leaders need to purposefully plan for flexibility in budgets and in time allocation to encourage innovation. However, lavish spending on innovation is not required and it can actually be detrimental to the team’s climate for innovation.

10. Leadership Support: Innovation teams must believe that their efforts are important to top management. The innovation team leader can influence this factor greatly by serving as a conduit between the team and more senior leadership.

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 Fostering positive interpersonal relationships can be difficult when you must also encourage open debate. It is important for the leader and group members to acknowledge the need to debate ideas and issues while , at the same time, being careful that the debate does not erode positive interpersonal cohesion. Continuing to have open conversations may even improve interpersonal cohesion.

Research and practice clearly show the strong positive impact that climate can have on creativity. The positive linkage between these factors and performance are applicable across a wide variety of work environments.

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By definition, one cannot guarantee a successful innovation project. However, as we have discovered, there are many factors that can ensure a climate that fosters creativity and leads to profitable innovation.

To read more on this, download my white paper on Creating a Climate for Innovation

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  1. Glossop

    Good stuff Daniel.

    Given the importance of ‘climate’ for innovation, would you care to speculate a little about the cultural factors within or around an enterprise that generate (or suppress) a climate for innovation – e.g. a tendency to risk-aversion, an overemphasis of finance and accounting, an unwillingness to re-invest instead of taking short-term profits, a general resistance to change etc.? And how managers might effect a shift in culture towards being more innovative?

    Are there national or regional cultural factors – and/or national or regional systems such as the venture capital systems in a country – that lead to some areas being more or less predisposed towards innovation?


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