How to Evaluate Innovation Environments

How to Evaluate Innovation Environments

It is a difficult task to understand a workplace environment, let alone to diagnose what is happening in it. What is outlined below is the framework of how to look at the organizational ecosystem through four evaluation areas of culture, operational model, team dynamics, and leadership behaviors. Starting with organizational culture the first evaluation area is the level of autonomy that is awarded to the subject matter experts. Awarded autonomy does vary from person to person, but for creativity purposes, there will need to be a high level of independence awarded to the entire organization in terms of how they work. Linked with autonomy are the true values of the organization. Many organizations post nominal value statements across the organization but only reward the values that they believe in. For example, numerous organizations list innovative thinking as a core value, yet they subtly punish or discourage their workforce from voicing their novel insights. Closely associated with values are the organization’s written and unwritten rules, where these norms help control the environment with customs and traditions. Intertwined in this is a dichotomy of what the organization says and what they expect. A tradition in many technology companies is having a playful environment where having a ping pong table fits that narrative. Yet, in many cases, employees are subtly discouraged from using the ping pong table because it gives poor optics that they are goofing off and not engaged in their work.

Evaluating a culture also includes how the organization defines poor performance. A lack of productivity, quality, or ingenuity are across the board indicators, but an organization will typically choose one focus area which indicates their true concern. For example, some organizations will accept work that is delayed or late as long as it is of the highest excellence, while other companies will avert their eyes from poor quality as long as production goals are met on time. In terms of innovation, is the organization stressing that risks are being taken, that the learning process is heavily embedded into pilot programs, or is it stressing no tolerance for failure? Lastly, the organizational structure represents the facilitation of ideas or the gatekeeper to idea generation. While a hierarchical or command and control structure represents a model of standardization and alignment, it is also the structure that kills multiple ideas as it tries to pass from the bottom to the top of the structure.

Linked with culture is the organization’s operational model, this is the flow of work and how value is created, this is the Ford production line that takes raw materials and turns them into a vehicle. To understand if the work model is conducive to innovation, the evaluator must look at what the type of work is. The creative arts of graphic design or software programming easily lend themselves toward innovative types of work where standardized and process driven fields naturally inhibit creative thought. A quick method to understand if a work model is designed for creative thought is to watch a project kickoff. Does the project manager or facilitator take time to introduce the team and explore the problem or do they jump in and layout here is what we need to accomplish with very little flexibility?

The third indicator of if the flow of operations helps facilitate innovation is the actual workplace location set-up. Is the office virtual, is it an open office layout, is it a cubicle farm, or something in between? The fad of the 2000s has been to build large open office space under the belief that it would create interactions between people that didn’t usually connect. These random connections would then generate novel thoughts, unfortunately, the open office turned into a public library where talking out loud is discouraged. The evaluation key is to look at if the office has a mixture of both interaction and areas for an individual to achieve deep and uninterrupted thought. Depending on the office setup, are the tools in place to help facilitate their efforts ranging from project software and design tools to all of the other materials needed to help create. Lastly, does the work flow continuously in a smooth pattern or is it consistently interrupted, distracted, and sidetracked from its original intent.

The third area of focus is on team dynamics and how well the group creates together. Research consistently finds that individuals outperform groups in terms of idea production and quality, yet we default to team innovation routinely. Part of this is because problems and products have become so complex that multiple experts with specific domain knowledge are needed to identify solutions, but this builds a natural detractor to the creative process. To understand if the team helps or hinders innovation the first checkpoint is understanding their level of candor and encouragement. A refined team understands that they must provide idea feedback to question, understand, and build upon ideas but that they also have to do it in a manner that encourages further dialogue instead of stunting it. This helps the interplay of having a cognitively diverse team. This variation in how the team members analyze, apply logic, and explore solutions should be varied as they will provide unique results.

The true test of a team is to watch them solve problems together and the interactions that occur between members. Are they able to allow for reflection ensuring that everyone is able to digest and voice their thoughts? Do they encourage counter arguments or do they zero in on the most obvious solution wanting a quick resolution? Lastly, team engagement has to be monitored as the clearest sign that a team dynamic is faltering is that the voices of many will turn into the voices of just a select few.

The last focus area centers on leadership. Beginning with behaviors and how the leadership team inspires, encourages, and responds to disruptive innovative energies. Is the team comfortable with using different perspectives to solve problems or are they the only one solving problems? Is the leadership team capable enough to explore ambiguous thoughts or can they only stretch to certain mental blocking points? Leaders will inherently define what a top performer looks like, a stagnant organization will typically define their top performers as mirror images of themselves. An enlightened leader will struggle to achieve a single definition of a top performer knowing that there are multiple versions of this. Lastly, leaders will reward desired behavior to encourage more of it. Does the leadership reward failure because something insightful was derived from the experiment or are mistakes hidden and swept under the rug? The model of leadership plays a special role in the evaluation of an innovation ecosystem because it directly controls the other three key factors of culture, the flow of operations, and the team. In essence, if the leadership model doesn’t support the innovative environment, the culture, operations, and team never will either.

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