It’s what my captain said to me when I, as a newly minted junior officer, was driving a U.S. Navy frigate through the Suez Canal. He was cautioning me not to slow down for the occasional small rafts and even swimmers that crossed the canal. He was confident they’d get out of the way, and if they didn’t…well, at least we wouldn’t jeopardize the ship.
It’s a good analogy to the challenge facing companies in a constantly changing market and environment. Another way to say it is this: Innovate or die.
Of course, all companies recognize the need for tactical innovation, if not occasional strategic innovation, as one price to staying relevant in their respective industries. But many of the companies with whom I work struggle to create an effective innovation culture. Typically, the approach is to state a need to hire people with an entrepreneurial spirit, or they may even add “originality” or “creativity” as a corporate value… and then they fail to connect the dots and remain as one more firm in a crowded field.
Everyone seems to understand that innovation is the result of people, but in a company it can only occur if the culture supports it. Specifically, an innovative culture requires an engaged workforce – one that is personified by the following perceptions of its employees:
- My contribution is significant and I expect to be held accountable.
- I trust management and believe they trust me too.
- I’m required to work with people with different skills and perspectives.
- Processes encourage collaboration.
- My teammates are willing to put the needs of the company ahead of their own and so am I.
When companies assert they value innovation but fail to create a culture where the above perceptions are created, they will limit innovation and lose steam against a strong competitive current. In today’s environment, that puts the enterprise at risk of running aground.