How To Actually Kill Culture with Innovation Programs

Customer ResearchCulture
Last updated
September 14, 2023

Dedicated innovation programs and labs are modern versions of good ol’ silofication. People, teams, initiatives, projects, products, whole departments, become separated from each other, all in the name of innovation. As such, rather than drive innovation, they could actually be killing it.

Dedicated innovation programs are to many companies what big perms were to the 80’s – an absolute necessity. Throwing huge budgets after various efforts to avoid the big D-word (dare we say disruption?). Yet, at the end of the day, we have to ask if they are what they are cracked up to be? Maybe, rather than driving innovation, innovation programs in companies could actually be killing it.

Does this sound a tad too dramatic? Stay with us on this one!

As you know, many companies are falling over themselves to develop dedicated innovation programs to stay one step ahead of the startups and their competitors. A recent study showed that companies are gearing themselves up to implement the best corporate innovation program. They are building the right teams, with the right processes, and the right employee education on emerging technologies.

There are many types of innovation programs. The most favored among them is the innovation lab or innovation colony, often an isolated outpost of the company. Take a startup-like space, fill it with some startup-like gears and use a bit of startup-like lingo. Let the innovation begin.

Too easy, right? You bet.

Are Innovation Programs All Show?

How successful are innovation programs really? The performance of corporate innovation labs and accelerators has been mixed and this has led to questions of whether such programs are a good idea.

"Companies are simply putting on 'tech company' clothes and trying to look more startup with no real strategy and no strong ties to their business units" - Editor and Co-Founder of Innovation Leader, Scott Kirsner, questions what is known as ‘innovation theatre’. He thinks companies are simply putting on ‘tech company’ clothes and trying to look more startup with no real strategy and no strong ties to their business units. Many of them die after two or three years with nothing to show. Here today, gone tomorrow.

The Head of Innovation at AXA warns against treating innovation as a program. Companies should instead see innovation as a continuous activity of experimentation, validation, iteration, and industrialization.

A Sure Roadblock to Innovation

But what troubles us here at Ideanote is how these corporate innovation programs negatively impact on the overall innovative culture.

“Great organizations don’t depend on a small number of exclusive people to come up with innovations. Instead, they create a culture in which every employee is encouraged and empowered to innovate” (Harvard Business Review).

This rings true whether an organization has an old-school R&D department or the latest innovation lab. At Ideanote, we happen to believe everyone is and should be able to innovate. By setting up innovation outposts, organizations effectively rob 95% of their people of this opportunity and miss out on tapping into that ability.

It seems that dedicated internal innovation programs and segmented groups of innovators are modern versions of good ol’ silofication, wrapped in nicer lingo. People, teams, initiatives, projects, products, whole departments, become separated from each other, all in the name of innovation.

Yet, in reality, this can be at great cost to innovation, in itself. It discourages across-the-board employee engagement and misses valuable idea input from all in the organization. And there’s the grudge factor. An innovation approach that separates out an exclusive innovation group can’t help but breed resentment from other employees towards the ‘hip crew’ and their ‘cool’ job.

Are you actually creating more silos with your innovation program?

So in effect, by dedicating innovation to only a part of the company, the part with Fussball tables, of course, you are building silos of innovation. The very silos that you are trying to tear down by trying to build a more innovative culture with your startup-y outpost. Kinda self-defeating, don’t you think?

Making Everyone’s Ideas Count

An encouraging company culture can lead to every employee being an innovation powerhouse. What’s important is that innovation is blame-free. Otherwise, employees will feel safer going with existing conditions than attempting to innovate. Employees need to know their innovative efforts won’t lead to any repercussions.

There are plenty of inspiring examples of all-inclusive innovation. Companies such as Amazon have created internal, virtual idea suggestion boxes. These give employees an easy place to submit ideas when they spring to mind. The UK Department for Work & Pensions developed its highly successful Idea Street, a gamification platform to encourage ideas from employees. Westin hotels send their top five innovators on all-expenses-paid exotic holidays every quarter. This incentivises employees to think innovatively all year round, not just once a year.

So the question is whether these designated innovation approaches to innovation are achieving their purpose. We have our doubts and wonder if, in fact, they are doing more harm than good. Making innovative activities exclusive members-only clubs seems counterproductive to us.

Looking for an easy way to capture and develop your employees’ ideas? Check out our innovation app.

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