How to Build a Culture of Innovation by Killing Mediocrity Pt. 1

Innovation Suffocates in a Culture of Mediocrity: How to breathe life into company culture to compete for the future

Ideas are a dime a dozen. Everyone seems to have one or more. I just wish that more organizations would appreciate how plentiful and beneficial ideas are to the future of their business. The challenges are all too common. Often, ideas are shared in fleeting moments with the same zeal as observing the weather. Once expressed they recede from view, a moment and opportunity passed, with life returning to its normal, unvaried routine. Also common is the lack of people or processes to do anything with ideas when they are specifically shared with the intention of causing effect or change.

In a world where the expression of ideas is a commodity but the consideration and implementation of them is a scarce resource, how do we create a more inviting culture that fosters their transformation from concept to manifestation?

To Err is Human, To Create, Divine

From startups to global enterprises I see two things. One, I’ve observed the voicing of ideas that immediately vanish into the ether of complacence, politics or blatant disregard. Two, I’ve witnessed the escape of morale where employees refuse to share ideas to improve or innovate or are uninspired to do so. In each condition, fervor wanes and mediocrity prevails. Weary spirits become a symptom of a diseased culture where hierarchy, process, and survival suffocate a democracy of ideas.

When ideas are extinguished, the ability to evolve and grow is hindered or completely crippled. The compromise of competing for today is simply business as usual. To compete and thrive over time though necessitates a culture of innovation, one where ideas are expressed but also shaped, enhanced, or combined into practice. This is the difference between any company that manages itself toward common goals and efficiencies and one that leads people toward creative destruction. Said another way, the difference between competing for now and for the future is a keen sense and supporting infrastructure to improve or re-invent the way people work and also what it is they create—even at the risk of competing against legacy processes and systems.

Change Happens to You or in Spite of You

If companies do not disrupt themselves, disruption will eventually disrupt them.

In any risk averse culture, this premise sounds absurd of course. Why would anyone challenge the status quo? Why would anyone dare to think different? As many executives I’ve worked with initially would point out, “We are profitable today why would we rock the boat?”

The number of answers or excuses voiced to these questions is beyond great, it’s blinding.

  • Technology is affecting customer behavior to the point where expectations and values are becoming radically different than what you stand for today.
  • Technology and changes in behavior are opening and closing customer touch points.
  • Today’s executives are out of touch with how younger customers and employees think, relate, and communicate.
  • Workforces are aging and are not challenged to learn new skills or systems.
  •  Millennials are overwhelming personnel balances and creating conflicts in how they work versus how they’re trained to work.
  • Supply chains are squeezed as businesses compete in real-time.
  • Competitive threats are rising out of nowhere as anyone with an idea can use new platforms such as Kickstarter and indiegogo to generate customer awareness and support.

The list goes on. This is why any and all companies must accept that this is the end of business as usual. To survive, they must find leverage in digital Darwinism. They must accept that technology and society are evolving faster than current infrastructures, and philosophies, can adapt. Those that refuse to change now and over time will ultimately succumb to digital Darwinism by intentionally competing for irrelevance. Times change. So must you.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Swords: The New Kodak Moment

Remember that “Kodak moment?” Well, you’re among the last generation to appreciate its true meaning. The Kodak moment was powerful. The words alone struck an emotional connection with human beings around the world. It evoked a warming sense of nostalgia. Kodak’s leadership team however didn’t share the same appreciation for what the Kodak moment could mean to future generations.

Rather than compete for relevance, Kodak ultimately fell to digital Darwinism by becoming irrelevant to new generations of consumers. This evolutionary milestone is particularly sad as Kodak was home to some of the most forward-thinking scientists around digital imaging who helped the company secure industry-leading patents. Competing for the future wasn’t part of the company’s everyday culture unfortunately. Innovation wasn’t woven into the DNA of Kodak’s culture. The executive team was spoiled by profitability and managed business decisions and people accordingly. Ironically, executives feared that digital would cannibalize its lucrative film business. Rather than invest in creative destruction and compete for the next generation of customers, the industry evolved without it and sealed Kodak’s fate.

Now the “Kodak moment” is something students and executives will examine as “that moment when businesses failed to embrace creative destruction to compete for the future.”

The key to innovation is to question everything, challenge convention, and relentlessly pursue relevance.

Practicing without a Safety Bet

For decades, businesses implemented proactive strategies to become recession proof when the economy turned. When companies batten down the hatches, they tend to insulate themselves from any potential storm as a matter of survival.

The act of survival is seemingly safe but it also invites new threats from more courageous competitors.

Playing safe seems to be just that…it’s safe. In a time of persistent disruption however, playing safe may in fact contribute to a significant loss of momentum.  Essentially, people stop pushing forward and when that happens, fate pushes back. Why? Leadership cowers to programmatic measures that are as predictable as they are menacing. Spending is cut. Talent is released. Decisions are synonymous with conservatism. Risk aversion is pervasive. Confidence is peddled for vulnerability.

Disruption doesn’t discriminate. The truth is that digital Darwinism and creative destruction are good economic phenomenon for us as consumers, stakeholders and investors. The question however, is which side of markets do you wish to be on, those that are losing or gaining? It’s usually one or the other.

WTF! [What’s the Future] of Business?

  • Technology isn’t going away.
  • Change is inevitable.
  • The unfamiliar eclipses what it is we think we know at accelerated paces.

What we know isn’t what we need to know. Familiarity, process, and our comfort zones are only holding us back.

Leadership, innovation, adaptation and resilience are traits of today’s successful businesses and also the foundation for mere survival in the near future.

To compete for the future starts with investing in a culture that promotes productive thinking, exploration and experimentation. That’s just the beginning however. Executives need to believe that managing teams towards goals is one thing.  It is leading people in new directions that surface new opportunities. To do so requires vision, transparency and trust.

Innovation is about shifting from a management culture to that of leadership, one where people are empowered to contribute to the destiny of the organization as well as their own.

Everyone must take part…everyone. This includes management becoming accountable for harvesting and introducing new ideas and talent. HR programs require modernization to recognize and reward people for the contributions that go above and beyond their current job descriptions. Older decision makers should learn from younger employees to gain insight and empathy into new generations and how they think and what they value. Most importantly, risk shouldn’t go overlooked. It must not dangle over the heads of would be intrapreneuers.

If we do not empower intrapreneurialism, we either nurture the unexceptional or push people toward external entrepreneurialism, which benefits everyone but you.

Risk management is no longer an executive’s leverage. While risk should always be considered, they’re guardrails in the end. Governance, legal, and decision-making as it exists was defined for an era of business that is gone or ephemeral. Creativity, ingenuity, and inspiration are to be celebrated moving forward. The hardest part is recognizing that the culture that lives today is actually stifling breakthroughs.

Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of incredible and not so incredible startups. I’ve also fought political and emotional battles within some of the largest enterprise organizations around the world. I’ve won much more than I’ve lost. But in every case, I’ve learned and grown. More importantly, I observed a series of traits that emerged as organizations successfully embarked upon a journey of change.

As time and experience progressed, I compared these recurring traits to highly regarded brands known for their reputation of innovation and leadership. Companies such as Nike, Virgin, Tata Group, Tesla, Google, Burberry, GE, and many others, each share common characteristics that we can study, embody, and integrate into other adaptive organizations to transform. The goal is to more effectively compete for the future by striving to earn relevance today. The goal is to also recognize people and how they can help build an alternative yet complimentary destiny. Allow me to introduce you to the common pillars of innovation to build a foundation for tomorrow…today.


About the Author Brian Solis is principal at Altimeter Group, a research firm focused on disruptive technology. A digital analyst, anthropologist, and futurist, Solis has studied and influenced the effects of emerging technology on business, marketing, and culture. Solis is also globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders and published authors in new media. His latest book, The End Of Business As Usual, looks at the changing consumer landscape, its impact on business and what companies can do to adapt and lead. moments of truth. More by this Author