Oct 312014

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Dr. Earl R. Smith II

There is lots of talk these days about the need for innovation. Two things are important to recognize. One, talking about innovation is not innovative. Saying is not doing. Two, innovation and stimulating a sustainable culture of innovation is far harder than talking about doing so. Doing is much harder than saying.


There is much talk of innovation and the challenges of how to stimulate and sustain it. It is one of the questions that transcend the stage of development of a company. It is also a question that should engage the entire team. Nothing affects the fortunes of an organization more than a team’s ability to come to terms and overcome the challenge of maintaining a culture of innovation. The world is simply to fluid and change such a dominate characteristic of the times we live in – innovation is necessary for survival.

Eventually all of my coaching engagements come to focus on the challenge of developing and maintaining a corporate culture that allows it to respond effectively to a rapidly evolving marketplace with a solid emphasis on creating value through innovation. The difficult aspect of this question is that it is very easy to discuss intellectually but implementation of any solution can prove very difficult. As a friend was fond of saying, “an understanding of innovation is, in itself, not innovative”.

Innovation is difficult because it necessitates the collaboration of two very different types of intellects. In order to develop such a culture, creative and the analytical types need to find a way to work effectively together. It is hard to overstate the difficulties that such an effort can encounter.

In my experience, the CEO and COO are two of the most important players in the effort to stimulate a culture of innovation. The third important player in the effort is the Chairman of the Board of Directors. It is this third player that is often overlooked – probably because in many companies the CEO also occupies the role of Chairman. That arrangement precludes an important dynamic – the role of the Board of Directors in the strategic evolution of corporate culture.

One of the principal reasons that this division of responsibilities is important is that most often the CEO and COO fall into the category of ‘analytical types’. Their focus is on essentially and appropriately on the tactical issues which revolve around the implementation of the company’s tactical plan. A strong Board lead by a visionary Chairman will act to counter this imbalance and contribute to the evolution of a culture of innovation. They will break the bottlenecks obstructing the flow of creative ideas.

A company must create a culture where all participants can challenge why something that does not make sense to them. They must be able to ‘think out of the box’. However, my experience has been that not all team members are able to do this effectively – in fact, it is critical that a substantial part of the team focus on thinking inside the box. This group provides the stability and institutional memory of the company – an essential contribution. Others will be better at thinking in new and revolutionary ways. They must come to terms with the importance of this stability and the need to preserve the organizational foundations while exploring and introducing new ways of thinking and operating.

The core issue in a culture of innovation is the relationship between these two groups. For it to function properly, there must be a high level of trust, an easy and direct pattern of communication and a freedom which allows each member of the team to focus their energies on being the best at what they do best.

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