Fostering a culture of innovation – Nik Gebhard 0

Posted on 21, July 2011

in Category practitioner experience

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.

Are you?

This article originally appeared on Bridging the Gap on 21 July 2011. Click here to view the original article.