Building a Company Culture Using the Innovation Curve

By Consumer Dummies

A company’s culture is revealed in the quality of the workplace relationships and how well the company treats change or handles the unexpected. One way to find out whether your company embraces or fears change is to determine where it falls on the innovation curve.

Introducing the innovation curve

A company’s position on the innovation curve indicates how it thinks about, embraces, or adapts to change. On one end of the innovation curve are Innovators; on the other end are Laggards:

  • Innovators: A small percentage (2.5 percent) of companies and decision-makers fall into this category. They break the rules because, as far as they’re concerned, there are no rules. They instigate disruptive technologies, technologies that change how people live and see the world. Innovators brought us downloadable music, Google Maps, and social networking. Innovators are incubators for start-up companies that thrive on the edge of uncertainty and boldly lead where no other company has gone before.

    Question for you: How long did it take you to experiment with social media in your business? When did your business get its Facebook page or start monitoring customer feedback on Yelp.com? The longer you took to explore the effects of new technology on your business, the further behind you become, exposing your company to greater uncertainty.

  • Early adopters: Early adopters are people and companies who are quick to grasp a good idea when they see one. They prefer to lead, not follow, and they aren’t afraid to invent or adopt different ways of doing things if doing so gives them an edge. About 13.5 percent of people and businesses fall into this category. They are risk takers.
  • Early majority: People and companies in this category are open to change as long as it doesn’t rock the boat too much. They operate in the zone between the early adopters and the late majority folks, veering back and forth between the two. They want innovation, but only after the bugs have been ironed out. Their business culture can be in transformation for several reasons, one of which is that they are moving from a command-and-control structure to a more adaptive and flexible culture.
  • Late majority: People in this group, which constitutes 34 percent of people and companies, prefer to wait until they feel absolutely certain about what is going on. Results have to be consistent before they feel comfortable introducing new ideas into their culture. When it’s no longer practical to resist, they’ll transplant an idea from elsewhere but will do so without adapting it to fit. If this quick fix fails, which is highly probable, they blame the idea rather than examine how the implementation process may have sabotaged their success.

    Late majority companies prefer to avoid risk and prevent mistakes, value perfectionism and predictability, and don’t like surprises. They have a low level of trust in their employees’ abilities and insert tons of controls to ensure that no one colors outside the lines. (Note that some of these characteristics also apply to early majority companies that still have one foot stuck in old habits.)

  • Laggards: The laggards are the real old-timers who prefer to use a rotary phone, still fax messages, and don’t know how to turn on a computer. Get the picture? About 16 percent of people and companies fall into this category.

Companies that don’t manage their cultures can unintentionally punish or block the creativity and innovation they expect employees to deliver.

Building a company culture that values innovation

Over-controlling cultures block innovation, which is a product of flexible thinking and a company’s mind-set, as well as the ability to spot insights.

An unexpected event or a disruption to the routine can be an opportunity to take a serious look at processes that stymie progress, to reinvent how things get done, and to open the door to creative solutions. Answering the following questions can shed light on how tightly you control situations and data rather than allow intuition or insight to prevail:

  • Do you have excessive procedures and processes in place to control how things get done? If you or your company put too many controls in place, you foster an environment that isn’t conducive to innovation.
  • Do you listen to or ignore information that doesn’t fit the norm or red flags that an employee may raise? If you ignore information that doesn’t fit your or your company’s beliefs or business culture, you are missing the moment to adapt, check for ethical issues, or discover a totally different approach to routine situations.
  • To what extent do you trust your employees to do what is required to achieve a goal? Put simply, in low-trust workplace cultures, employees become conditioned to not take initiative or innovate. Conversely, high-trust workplaces foster employee initiative; they trust their employees to get the job done.
  • Do you punish mistakes or use failures to learn? Trust and the ability to learn from failure are part of an Innovator’s tool kit; they are also key indicators of whether your organization has the capacity for flexibility.

    Perfectionism can undermine your company’s ability to adapt. Companies that seek perfection squelch creativity and insight. To avoid this trap, try to cultivate a culture that instills higher levels of trust in individuals. This, combined with the organization’s collective talent, can counterbalance fear of mistakes.

When you move closer to the Innovator category, you shift perspective. Instead of seeing a mistake as a failure, you treat it as another step in the experimentation process. Had 3M been locked into perfection, the Post-it Note wouldn’t exist. Post-it Notes came about when a glue that was being formulated wasn’t sticky enough — a happy accident born out of a production mistake. Similarly, Thomas Edison, who was told he was too stupid to learn anything, viewed his 1,000 attempts to invent the light bulb as 1,000 steps rather than failures. When you become an Innovator, you adopt the spirit of patience and perseverance by staying focused on the goal.