Want to Build a Culture of Innovation? Then Seek Out Your Innovation Agents

‘No man is an island, entire of itself’ runs the saying and it should probably go on to say that no concept should be introduced in isolation either. In the VUCA world, we’re all challenged with constantly trying to do something new, to create lasting change, transformation and disruption. That challenge means it helps to have others on your side, adding their enthusiasm, energy, perspective and creativity to the mix. Why… because if there’s one truth about innovation, it’s that it’s definitely not a solo sport!

So why is it that in all too many instances organisational change is seen as something linear; developed and introduced at the top before being drip fed out to those individuals and departments which are seen as necessary to the process? From the point of view of an outsider you can see where that one goes. Instant ‘them and us’ divisions spring up between the chosen few and the rest; resentments and infighting breaks out, as those seeking to implement change clash with those who have been excluded and are therefore trying to run in business-as-usual mode.

And that’s before you find that your concept of what is necessary for change doesn’t take account of what happens on the ground, meaning that one seemingly small tweak can have repercussions throughout the organisation. Take motor racing and the latest proposal to cut the cost of engine development in F1 cars for example. The proposal seemed simple; remove one of the hybrid units, thereby cutting cost and improving noise. However, initial responses from manufacturers indicate that the ‘simple’ change would involve a complete engine redesign in order to accommodate power and energy constraints. Moreover, a redesigned engine may have chassis implications, effectively requiring a re-imagining of the entire vehicle as well as a potential change in driving style.

It’s a powerful lesson on interconnectivity and why change impacts far beyond the immediate sphere. However, when it comes to organisational change there is a method of implementation which is even less productive than selective introduction. That’s when leaders stand up, deliver a bold announcement to the effect that from now on it’s all going to be different, wonderful and innovative and then expect people to just get on with it. There is no attempt at building understanding; no sharing of background, strategy and goals, and certainly no training or development in the skills, techniques, mindset and behaviour required to deliver this brave new world. Oh, and just for good measure, having delivered the announcement leaders usually then dart off onto the next big thing, leaving everyone floundering in their wake.

When you consider how prevalent these two methods of change management seem to be it is hardly surprising that so many change projects fail. It also shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there appears to be a huge disconnect between leadership perceptions and those of their employees. Witness a Capgemini report in June 2017 which revealed that whilst 75% of executives believed their organisation had a culture of innovation, experimentation and risk taking; just 37% of employees agreed. Given this disconnect it is hardly a surprise then that the same report revealed that just 7% of companies believed they could test and deploy new ideas quickly.

Introducing I-Agents 

So, what’s the solution? Well, if the problem is in the deployment method then perhaps it is time for a new way, one which actively engages people in change. After all, when your people are on your side then they become the leaders, the influencers, the advocates and champions taking personal accountability for delivering success. That’s where i-agents come into their own.

Innovation agents, intrapreneurs, change champions, innovation champions; call them what you will but when it comes to building a culture of innovation these are the people who will act not simply as the messengers for change but also as the advocates of change. For the purposes of this article, (and in our book Building a Culture of Innovation), we use the title i-agents but every organisation should choose a name for their internal champions that is appropriate to their business culture and the language that’s resonates with their people.

Where do you find these i-agents? They could be anywhere. Yes, they may be team or department leaders but they also could be ‘leaders without a title’; individuals who because of their personality or attitude naturally influence those around them. We’d hope that you know who they are and if you don’t then the leaders throughout the organisation certainly should do. But we have to admit that sometimes you find that your people will surprise you; delivering enthusiasm in unexpected ways.

Take the TV series Undercover Boss for example. Going undercover in their own businesses with a view to seeing how the business runs from the other end, bosses are quite often surprised by employees who are acting as tremendous advocates (or otherwise) for the organisation. It is these positive advocates who would make good i-agents, no matter where they work in the business. In fact, we came across an example of the power of i-agents just the other day. Cris has been invited to deliver a masterclass at the Intrapreneurship Conference in Toronto in November. As part of the build-up to the conference the organisers are highlighting stories of best practices. One from RBC perfectly illustrates the role of i-agents.

A chat with Christine Silva, Senior Director, Intrapreneurship & Early Talent Programs at RBC highlights the way in which the bank took an early decision to focus their innovation efforts on people first; to get diversity of thought, to build communities and skills. In order to do this the bank looks to find ‘local champions to bring that organic grassroots responsiveness to what’s locally relevant.’ That, according to Christine, means finding people ‘who are passionate intrapreneurs themselves who want to bring other intrapreneurs together in their area, to help them find their like-minded group internally.’

Start with People who Care

In other words, by creating i-agents you don’t simply create advocates for change; you also create momentum. It may start small, but even one i-agent as an advocate for change can enthuse others, helping the innovation message to percolate throughout the organisation. From success comes more success as people see the power of innovation in action for themselves and become engaged in playing their own part in building a culture of innovation.

Just think what your business would be like if in every team, every department, every corridor you had one or more i-agent infecting others with their energy and enthusiasm. Grassroots movements are always powerful and when that movement is promoting the strategy and culture of the organisation then there is no limit to what can be accomplished. And don’t believe for a moment that your i-agents are going to operate as a closed team. Yes, you may start by selecting the pioneers, the ‘positive maverick’s’ as we call them, but as every i-agent spreads their influence, the momentum will grow until a culture of innovation becomes genuinely evident.

When you have found your i-agents then for goodness sake give them the tools they need to deliver change. Take them on the journey of discovery that you have been on, share your vision of the future and help them to understand the reason for the change as well as the outcome which change will bring. Just as it’s vital for senior leadership to both intellectually and emotionally buy-in to the case for change, without your i-agents doing the same, the impact and influence they will have will diminish beyond any recognition. Work with your people as they discover their role in the change and give them access to training and development which will help them to truly be the agents of change. Remember, their role is about leading change, so ensure you equip them with the necessary skills and knowledge, plus fuel their confidence to lead well and model the way. And as their sphere of influence grows make sure they in turn can provide development access to others; creating a self-perpetuating increase in skills across the business which won’t just enhance innovation opportunities but also customer service, delivery, reputation – in fact every aspect of the organisation.

However, and it is a big however, don’t be fooled into thinking that the impact which i-agents brings means that you can then step back and move on. For a start, innovation isn’t a bolt-on bolt-off addendum to the organisation. If you want to build a culture of innovation then it has to infuse every decision, action and element of the organisation. So, you can’t just set innovation running and then wander off to the next ‘fad’ which catches your eye. To quote Gandhi “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” As leaders, you have to live the culture every day or, i-agents or not, the momentum will wither and die. Equally, your i-agents will need ongoing support. They’ll need to be kept up to speed with successes, with progress which has been achieved overall, with challenges or barriers which are being experienced and how to overcome then.

But this isn’t just a one-way exercise: i-agents will have their eyes and ears to the ground so can provide senior leaders with valuable insight on how the change is working in reality. This feedback loop will enable the detailed approach and timings to be adjusted and fine-tuned accordingly, after all, how many times do change initiatives go exactly to plan, let alone ones which are focussed on creating a culture of innovation.

A simple, yet effective, framework for ensuring you appropriately equip i-agents to play a pivotal role in leading the cultural shift is The Culture Consultancy 4E’s MethodologyTM. 

Educate: Providing i-agents with the understanding and rationale behind actions.

Engage: Ensuring i-agents are motivated and support the organisation in a positive way.

Empower: Encouraging i-agents to take ownership and responsibility.

Enable: Creating the environment and structures to ensure i-agents take action and can deliver.

And Finally

The PwC 2017 innovation benchmark revealed that 54% of companies struggled to align their business and innovation strategies. This, according to PwC leaves “many companies flying blind as they place bets on innovation.”

Setting i-agents at the heart of your innovation strategy quite simply helps to generate an alignment across the entire organisation. When your people engage with the strategy, when they create and contribute to delivering a grass-roots movement which sets innovation at the heart of the organisation then who knows how far the power of innovation can take you. Actually, Christine Silva does and we’ll leave the last word to her. In the interview which we mentioned above she commented:

 “Find the people who are most passionate, and stay close, because when you find the people who are passionate, you unlock something awesome.”

About the authors

CRIS BESWICK

Originally trained as a product & industrial designer, Cris spent over a decade as a successful entrepreneur & CEO building an award-winning design group. He is now recognised globally as an expert on strategic innovation and creating innovative organisations.

He specialises in working with CEOs and senior teams on the strategy, leadership and culture innovation requires and has coached, advised and delivered keynotes to some of the world’s most successful companies on how to become exceptional by building game-changing innovation capability and embedding it into organisational culture.

Cris is also the Founder of thought leadership website The Future Shapers a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield School of Management and a Visiting Professor at ICESI University in Colombia.

He is co-author of Amazon best-selling book Building a Culture of Innovation, which was voted in the top 5 management books on innovation, as judged in the CMI book of the year awards 2017.

DEREK BISHOP

Formerly a customer service leader within financial services, Derek Bishop has over twenty years’ experience of leading people and delivering business results in high volume and complex environments. Derek is the co-founder of boutique agency Culture Consultancy and has a fundamental belief that in a commoditised world, competitive advantage and business success can only be achieved by enabling your people to be their best.

As an expert on culture change, leadership and customer experience he is considered one of the leading thinkers on creating high-performance cultures; working with leadership teams of global organisations which are looking to deliver sustainable performance improvements through successful organisational culture change, people alignment and engagement. Derek leads, develops and coaches senior managers through performance enhancement and culture alignment; fast growth SMEs through the workplace culture journey, and corporate ‘start-ups’ through the innovation and design challenges.

He is co-author of Amazon best-selling book Building a Culture of Innovation, which was voted in the top 5 management books on innovation, as judged in the CMI book of the year awards 2017. He is also a keynote speaker covering topics such as organisational culture, cultures of innovation, leadership excellence, next generation leadership and high performing teams.

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