The Seven C’s of innovation

I once had a meeting with a very senior manager in a fairly large organisation on the subject of innovation.   This company had recently trumpeted innovation as one of its core values and there were posters and desk mats in all the offices to prove it.   My first question was “so, what’s your definition of innovation?” … and he was stuck for an answer.   My second question was “what are you doing to demonstrate that value throughout the business?” … and this time he just said “Ah well, we’re still thinking about that”.    I recently blogged about another experience (not the same company) where innovation had become toxic.    So what is it about organisations who fanfare innovation but don’t act to embed the culture, processes and tools to make it happen?   Do they think that simply talking about innovation will procure groundbreaking new ideas and solutions by some form of osmosis?   The truth is of course that for an organisation to become truly innovative it needs to put in place the right building blocks to allow innovation to flourish.   So what are those building blocks, and what part can communicators play in helping to promote, nurture and embed innovation?   Well, here’s my take on it … these are what I call the Seven C’s of innovation.    Why not rate how your organisation is doing against each discipline?

CONTEXT – Many leaders talk about innovation but they don’t always know why – there’s no compelling sense of purpose.   This was why the senior manager I spoke to couldn’t articulate the meaning.   It wasn’t crystal clear to him what innovation was and why it was critical to his business.    There has to be a business context which puts innovation on the agenda.  Is it because of the need for new products and services, is it about increased competition or regulation, is it new technology, is it about efficiency and productivity?    The communicator’s job here is to spell out the ‘reason why’ and to make the word mean something.

COMMITMENT – Innovative companies have leaders who are genuinely committed to innovation and who understand what it takes.   It can’t be one man’s pet passion, it has to be a vision that’s shared at the top, otherwise it won’t reach to the bottom.    A recent survey of CEOs by IBM suggested that business leaders see creativity as the number one skill organisations need to adopt to face the challenges of the future.  It’s easy to talk about innovation and creativity, but are leaders prepared to truly encourage innovation and invest in ideas?   If they are, they need to communicate that commitment in an engaging way.   And they need to continually demonstrate and role model the commitment throughout the line.  Many people don’t feel they have ‘permission’ to suggest new ideas or to challenge existing ways of working.   Often that’s because of the vibe given off by their manager.    Innovative organisations have a leadership culture that makes creativity OK.

CAPABILITY – Innovative organisations are ‘geared up’ to manage innovation as a systematic process.   It’s all very well having an organisation full of ideas if you don’t know how to manage or implement them.   I’ve spoken with many companies who have launched an innovation scheme, gathered hundreds of ideas and then done nothing with them.  Result = disengagement.    Communication is key here – how you ask for ideas, what you do when you get them, how you keep the process transparent, how you say ‘no’ to an idea, how you maintain momentum, how you make investment decisions, how you demonstrate value.    We also need to tell the stories of innovation in action, let people know what happens to ideas that ‘make it’.

COLLABORATION – In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson brilliantly illustrates the spikes in innovation that coincide with collaborative conditions.  When human networks come together, great things happen – like the birth of the first cities 4,000 years ago, the artistic flowering of the Renaissance, the coffee shop culture of the 18th century or the Merseybeat music scene in the early sixties.  Great ideas happen when random thoughts collide or when one person builds on another’s hunch, so the key is to get those thoughts and ideas out on the table.   Innovative organisations build human and virtual networks, systems and cultures to enable people to collaborate.   They enable people to come together to share ideas, develop concepts, build prototypes, work in teams and collaborate for a common good.

CREATIVITY – Many people use the words innovation and creativity to mean the same thing.   Actually, though, innovation is the end result of a creative process.   If you want innovation, you need to encourage, develop and harness the creativity inside the organisation.   It’s definitely there – you just need to unleash it.    Most people do not see themselves as creative, or they don’t have the confidence to demonstrate their creativity at work.  They need encouragement and a little bit of support to help them break through.  Creativity can be taught and the first lesson is to believe in yourself.  If you think you’re creative, you will be.   Investing in creative skills on the ground is not a soft and fluffy ‘nice to have’.   It’s a ‘must do’ if you want innovation.

CULTURE – This is the really tough one.  Most organisations are killers of creativity.   Structures, rule-books, dyed-in-the-wool ways of working, risk-averse cultures, poor management and the general pressures of modern day business mean creative ‘free thinking’ is not encouraged or facilitated (or even tolerated sometimes!).   Often it’s not ‘culturally acceptable’ to ask questions and it’s not considered to be a good career move to challenge the ways things are done.  And if ideas are put forward, they can be frowned upon, shot down or lost in the ether.    The key is to create and sustain a culture where innovation comes naturally – an environment of trust and openness, where ideas are valued.  In many ways, this is what makes the truly great innovative organisations stand out – the innovation sticks.   We communicators already know how important communication is in building culture and this is where our engagement skills are so important.

COMMUNICATION – the seventh of our Seven Cs is the one that runs like a golden thread through the other six.   If the communication isn’t right from the start, the innovation won’t flow.   Innovation is all about ideas, hunches, connections, momentum, attitude, empowerment, confidence, encouragement, boldness, forward-thinking, leadership, trust, investment, risk taking, problem solving, collaboration, listening, sharing, fun, playfulness, curiosity – and if we can’t make some compelling stories out of that lot, we’re in the wrong business!

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