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The Key to Success In 2021: Building a Creative and Innovative Culture

By: Jeff DeGraff

In this article by Jeff DeGraff, he presents the four types of innovative cultures and four best practices for building a culture of innovation.

The Democratization of Creativity and Innovation

2020 was the year we got to see how innovative our most lauded institutions could be under pressure. While the failures were everywhere and obvious, there was one very visible effort that is providing some much-needed direction for your organization heading into 2021 – the COVID vaccine.

The vaccine development process typically takes over ten years. Six COVID vaccines will be available in one-tenth of that time. Over six hundred vaccine discovery efforts were launched, with only one in one hundred coming to fruition by early 2021. In normal times, the old seeks to accommodate the new. But in a time of crisis, it’s the new that assimilates the old. There is no return to normal when innovation completely changes what is possible.

The vaccine example is more than just a lesson in what can be achieved with a strategic gamble. It demonstrates how a whole scale change of organizational culture can be achieved. This requires nothing less than the democratization of creativity and innovation. Everyone working together across a wide array of boundaries.

The Four Types of Innovation Culture

The challenge of developing an innovation culture is that one size never fits all. Consider the differences in creating a vaccine, manufacturing, supplying, distributing, and injecting it in billions of people. What at first appears to be one innovation is actually dozens of innovations synchronized across a wide range of organizations and cultures.

Leaders need to ask two fundamental questions about an innovation that will help them determine the appropriate leadership mindset and type of culture:

  • How much innovation do we need? Breakthrough with a lot of risk or incremental with less risk?
  • How fast do we need innovation? Rapid with low sustainability or slower with high sustainability?

Decisions bring tradeoffs. There is no have-it-all solution. Leaders need to make choices.

Let’s look at examples of the four cultures necessary to make innovation happen:

Create Culture

The COVID vaccines were developed in loose federations of organizations, sometimes called creativity clusters. These included pharmaceutical companies, biotechs, universities, labs, investors, and a cast of domain experts across various disciplines. The CREATE culture is ad hoc and fluid. It changes as new things are discovered. CREATE leaders hold these organizations together with their vision. A north star that all can follow without a lot of process or hierarchy.

Control Culture

The opposite of CREATE is CONTROL culture. Army Operation Warp Speed is coordinating major manufacturers, airlines, package delivery and supply chain companies, and pharmacies to make, distribute, and deliver the vaccine. The system needs to function predictably from end to end. Efficiency and quality are key. Failure is not an option. CONTROL culture relies on hierarchy to make sure that everyone knows their role and responsibilities. Leaders are data-driven and constantly looking for improvements.

Compete Culture

COMPETE cultures seek to move fast. Consider how quickly GM and Ford transformed auto manufacturing plants into critical care ventilator production facilities. COMPETE culture leaders energize the workplace with decisive action. They set aggressive short-term goals that challenge the workforce to overcome barriers and win the race. COMPETE culture is typically contentious. It seeks to produce clear winners. COMPETE cultures reward individual achievement.

Collaborate Culture

The opposite of COMPETE is COLLABORATE culture. Brattleboro, Vermont, created a program called Everyone Eats. The city redirected some of their federal money to support local restaurants and farms. COLLABORATE cultures focus on the sustainability of the community. Leaders are values-driven and work to create cooperation. COLLABORATE cultures prize consensus, which makes decision making comparatively slow. Their success is defined by the creation of strong and lasting relationships.

How to Build a Culture of Creativity and Innovation

The conflict between these four types of innovation culture can be constructive. The key is to avoid both domination and comprise. Each culture has an essential role in creating innovations.

Here are a few best practices:

Your organization’s ability to innovate is only as good as its weakest culture

Consider your organization’s dominant culture and actively seek out the opposite. This will create the positive tension required to have new and better ideas and to see them implemented.

Actively manage your organization’s portfolio of cultures

Lead according to the outcome you seek. Remember, a single innovation will require different cultures as it advances from the discovery to the implementation phase.

Diversity is necessary for making innovation happen

Innovation is powered by constructive conflict. This requires that your organization has a wide range of abilities, experiences, and views. If everyone agrees with each other, consider expanding your gene pool.

How you create is what you create

Start at the end with what you seek and work backward to identify the associated culture type required to create it. Engage those types that are the most likely to succeed in creating your intended outcome.

The vaccine is bringing a new democratization to creativity and innovation. Success now requires a diversity of mindsets, competencies, and cultures. Boundaries are being crossed: business, government, education, not-for-profits, and the military. Disparate organizations are working together to do the creative work they can’t do individually.

Remember, in a crisis, innovation isn’t your best friend. It’s your only friend.

About the Author

Jeff DeGraff is both an advisor to Fortune 500 companies and a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. His simultaneously creative and pragmatic approach to making innovation happen has led clients and colleagues to dub him the “Dean of Innovation.” He has written several books, including Leading Innovation, Innovation You, and The Innovation Code. His most recent book The Creative Mindset brings 6 creativity skills to everyone.

Featured image via Unsplash

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