How to Evaluate Innovation Environments

How to Evaluate Innovation Environments

Evaluate Innovation Environments

It is a difficult task to understand a workplace environment, let alone to diagnose what is happening in it. Outlined below, the framework of how to evaluate innovation environments by looking at the ecosystem through four evaluation areas of culture, operational model, team dynamics, and leadership behaviors. Starting with organizational environment and the level of autonomy that is awarded to the subject matter experts. Awarded autonomy varies from person to person. For creativity purposes, the entire organization must have a high level of independence in how they complete work. Linked with autonomy are the true values of the organization.

Due to Organizational Environment

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. Similarly, organizations have written and unwritten rules. These norms 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. However, managers discourage employees from using the ping pong table because it gives poor optics that they are goofing off and not engaged in their work.

Seems Like a Cultural Evaluation

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.

Operational Model

Linked with culture is the organization’s operational model. This workflow creates value. 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. Project kickoffs give insight into the working model and how the design enables creative thought. 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?

Because of Workflow

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. Random connections generate novel thoughts, unfortunately, the open office becomes 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. This ranges from project software and design tools to all of the other materials needed to help create. Lastly, does the workflow move in a smooth pattern or is it consistently interrupted? Is the original intent distracted, and sidetracked consistently?

Team Dynamics

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. However, the default is team innovation. Problems and product complexity require that multiple experts with specific domain knowledge to identify solutions. Unfortunately, this approach handicaps the innovation 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. Also, their approach has to encourage 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. Variation provides unique results.

Problem Solving Maybe

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 monitoring occurs because of the clearest sign that a team dynamic is faltering.  Because the voices of many will turn into the voices of just a select few.

Hence Leadership

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. The stagnant organization will define its top performers as mirror images of themselves. A leader will struggle to achieve a single definition of a top performer knowing there are multiple versions.

Lastly, leaders will reward the desired behavior to encourage more of it. Does the leadership reward failure because something insightful was derived from the experiment? Are mistakes hidden and swept under the rug? The model of leadership plays a special role in the evaluation of an innovation ecosystem. 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.


Watson, M. (2018). Another Common Strategies and Practices Among Facilitators of Innovative Thinking in Organizations. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest.

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