February 12th 2018

Building an innovative culture

Building a culture that is fertile for innovation will vary from organisation to organisation. By it nature innovation is often creative and non-systematic, and cannot therefore be achieved by following a number of prescribed steps (Witte 1972)

We can however recognise good practice and apply approaches where suitable. Cooper(1998) suggests some critical factors for success:

  • A unique superior product
  • A strong market orientation encouraging a customer focused new product process
  • The right organisation structure, design and climate
  • Sharp and early product definition
  • More emphasis on consistency, completeness and quality of execution

It is worth commenting further on points two and three in relation to building a culture of innovation. The second point Cooper makes relates to a marketing practice and approach called ‘marketing orientation’.

… the marketing concept focuses on customers. A company that adopts the marketing concept puts the customer at the centre of all business decision-making and planning. A company with this approach is said to be marketing oriented” (Lancacster and Withey 2008)

This is fairly significant as design is also user-centred.

…design, by its very nature, takes a people-centred approach to problem solving…” (Best 2010)

In being ‘user-centred’ the two processes are intrinsically linked and provides the means for a dialogue between two business functions.

Differing cultural characteristics

The third point touches upon the subject of management styles. As noted in Design Drivers (2005) “Many companies today have turned to developing dynamic products in order to deal with a world in perpetual change... The management style and company culture asssociated with these products needs to be willing to change and able to adopt a creative approach to seek out new concepts and market opportunities”.

The older mechanistic organisation is being replaced with a more ‘organic’ organisation, the differences are compared in the table below.

Characteristics of a mechanistic organisation Characteristics of an organic organisation
Hierarchical structure with stable departments based around different functions Flat structure with temporary work groups/teams based around specific projects
Vertical communications dominate Lateral communications dominate
Rigid job definitions set by senior management Flexible job definitions defined by individuals through interaction with colleagues
Power and authority based on seniority in hierarchy Power and authority changing with changing circumstance, based on individual skills and abilities

Design project team

In a mechanistic structure communication tends to be top down, problems are broken down into a series of specialisms, typically an organisational chart would show this set up as a pyramid. In an organic organisation communication tends to be more lateral and can be represented by the idea of ‘design circles’.

Circular teams

People quite often do not understand what someone else does. They do not know what information the other needs to do his job, and they do not understand how one person’s decisions can affect the work done by others. Design circles help to alleviate all of these problems” (Hollins and Hollins 1991)

These circles can be used at all stages of the design process to review the design, personnel in the design circle changes as a project progresses through the design process. The concept of the design circles helps give structure to design teams in organic organisations with the benefits of improved communication and informed decision making.

Developing a culture will take a time and effort, having someone championing these processes - managers with the right mind set will help. From experience PRINCE 2 project management, if taking too literally, can kill a creative project leaving it dead in the water. On a macro level a 'waterfall' approach is useful but you will need to think more 'agile'.

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