Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Innovation and Corporate Culture - Part 2

In Part 1, I promised I would get back to you on the results of a meeting I attended with the Oregon Innovator's Forum. As mentioned, the topic was "Innovation, Corporate Culture, & Getting Out of Our Own Way". Here is just some of the discussion that took place (thanks to Jon Marshall for providing the notes):

"Silos are a huge factor in this conflict of culture vs. innovation. I’m sure that silos must serve some function or they would have collapsed a long time ago. Is change happening in the appropriate place in the organization, and if not, how do we enlighten the organization or help the organization understand the need for the change to happen across the organizations?"

"Our company went from a startup to having silos. My perspective is that at some point in time, you can’t play that role of doing everything – there’s just too much going on. There are functions in the business and silos serve to organize and encapsulate these functions."

"I think there is specialization that you need to have. But what gets lost is that people lose the perspective that there is a cross functional aspect that you can’t have silos for . So we have to have a function that makes sure the right people continue to get together so that we can make the right decisions. I don’t know how you do it in a larger organization: we’re struggling with 100 employees. We have to remember to go back to not just saying IT will handle it because they’re the technology part, but that all of the employees can be a part of INNOVATING THE COMPANY."

"Have you had experience with that cross-functional piece?"

"When I came on board, the software projects were my department – we were the product development team. Yet we needed marketing involvement, we needed sales involvement, we needed technical support, we really needed every other area of the company to be a part of the product development process. What we found is maybe we did a really good job of releasing our product, but then the other pieces weren’t ready, we had some disconnects and things really weren’t working well. What we decided to do was we transformed our projects to work across the organization. That works for us because we have a cross functional team that’s not an outrageous size. This really worked because it broke down a lot of the barriers."

"So is there some generalization from that experience that you would offer to us?"

"I think innovation has to ultimately become an organizational cultural attribute. It’s not just IT or marketing, but the whole company has to be involved in creating innovation. The companies that have discovered that are successful at doing it."

"I’m interested in physics and in cosmology, the theory is the universe is expanding increasingly till it starts to rip into parts.The big rip. I think this is a great metaphor for what happens in companies as they grow. When you’re small, the average distance between any two employees is relatively small. As the company grows, if no one is paying attention, eventually you will form silos as essentially different pieces rip off of the whole. Like the model of the BIG RIP of the universe where communication ceases between the parts, the silos rip out of the whole and effective communication stops in many key areas. No one has to do anything to cause this, it is just a manifestation of growth where it becomes too much trouble to try to communicate across an increasing distance. When communication stops, the other parties essentially cease to exist for any given silo. One of the things I’ve been involved with is to repair these rips in the fabric of companies. Eg, the quality assurance department is not talking to the development department any more. They only see each other at the weekly status meeting. You always hear excuses on why that is. Too hard, too many meetings, too much work, too few people on our team.
But in reality, the communication in lining up the departments is almost THE most important thing. It doesn’t matter if your team comes in early or late if no one else knows what’s going on. Everyone else needs to be flexible to your improvements or your failures. Without that your going to fail as a team because someone in the fabric is going to fail. But if your organization remains in good communication and when one area starts to fail another group can pick up the slack, then you can survive the inevitable local failures."

"About the project team BEING the cross functional facilitating entity. Apparently companies are using project teams to be the thing that carries information across company silos and serves as an integrating force. But as you both were talking, it was occurring to me to suspect that we don’t have the right teams in a lot of cases. In other words, we’ve taken the minimum number of people we think needs to be on that team to get the project out the door, not realizing that secondary function of going across the silos; it may be that we need to significantly broaden out the teams.
One of the things we’re struggling with now is sales says “we’d like to help, but I need to get back to my job”. What we’re finding is that maybe we have to redefine what the sales position is."

These were some of the things said in the meeting around the challenges of innovating in the corporate culture.

By the end of the session, we realized that you cannot force culture to change. However, that doesn't mean that cultures can NEVER change. It just takes time. Where do you start? Changing the language. Telling stories. Getting people on board through small wins. It may take some time but before you know it the culture will change and people may not even realize it in the process. Get people to talk about innovation. Educate people on it.

By the way, if you are in the Portland area and are interested in attending the next session, please send me an email. The next session is scheduled for April 18th. I will be the moderator for this session (lucky me!). The topic will be on "Tools and Techniques that Drive Innovation". For more information, go here.

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