RIP Ideas

An organization’s future prosperity is of course directly correlated to its ability to remain relevant in the market place.  As we all know, to remain competitive organizations need to both innovate and invest. They need to stay in tune with their customers, be aware of shifting trends or disruptions and maintain a level of situational awareness that supports effective decision-making.  Most organizations are aware of those basics and CEO’s make efforts to stay on top of them. The “value” creation chain is however only as strong as its weakest link and unless the organization has a project delivery capability that can reliably translate innovations into delivered results, the CEO’s lofty goals may amount to nothing more than broken promises, seasoned with the bitter taste of failure. While some organizations are adept at project delivery, others struggle to deliver successful projects and find themselves being left behind. In the more visible cases, the failure to deliver successful projects has lead to bankruptcies (Kodak and Blockbusters are good examples of organizations who were left behind). In the less severe cases, the organization bungles its way forward; surviving only because of blind luck or because their competitors are equally inept.

When we think about project delivery, we often think about the process of Project Management. Process helps bring structure to the decision-making and helps ensure project work is properly organized. What gets less attention is the underlying corporate culture within which those processes exist. Culture is the invisible force that shapes the way an organization thinks, behaves and makes decisions. Far from being benign, culture can be a powerful influencer that shapes the outcomes an organization achieves. History has shown that a positive culture that both embraces and supports innovation can lead to startling results. History has also illustrated how other types of culture stifle innovation as they cling to the status quo. These “stale” cultures reject innovation, suppress new ideas and actively seek to maintain current state.

A stale culture is one in which leadership has fallen silent or become just slogans or words. It’s a culture in which the real decisions made within the organization are grounded in a desire to maintain the status quo rather than bring about change. Yes, the senior leadership may say they are innovators, but reality has detached from rhetoric and the underlying culture smothers, discourages and rejects the seed from which innovation is grown. Acting like a faulty immune system, the culture responds to new ideas with scorn and rejection.  When I first moved to Canada (many years ago), I worked for a stale culture. That organization is actually a good illustration of what can happen when a culture goes stale. A few years prior to my arrival a number of staff had come up with an idea for a new product that was aligned with the organization’s current product line, but that leveraged newly available technology. The middle management in the organization had rejected the idea so the staff involved quit, set up their own business and when I arrived were just celebrating having sold their business for a very, very significant return. Good for them and a significant loss for the original organization (needless to say I didn’t hang around too long once I realized I had joined a stale culture).

There are many visible symptoms of a stale culture.  The signs that may indicate the culture has gone stale may include indicators such as:

  1. Most new ideas are greeted with a “no” or a wall of resistance (sometimes overt, but often more subtle)
  2. No one shows initiative or volunteers for anything above the minimum
  3. A person who does try to do anything different is treated as something of a pariah
  4. No one is getting promoted, people have all been in the same role or level for many years
  5. No one is attending classes or developing themselves
  6. No one is reading professional books, journals or materials
  7. There is no debate, just the answer “no”
  8. No one is really held accountable for anything, performance related issues are ignored or swept under the carpet
  9. Lessons learned may get documented at the end of the project, but those lessons don’t really get learned
  10. Productivity is low and quality levels have been allowed to drop

Of course no organization starts out with a stale culture. Organizations are built by innovators who put in the hard work to succeed. But with success comes growth and eventually maturity. In that transition cultures change and somewhere along the line, some lose their “mojo”. They shift from being innovators to becoming bureaucracies and as the old joke goes; a bureaucracy is a place where good ideas go to die.

The key to turning around a stale culture is to recognize that being innovative isn’t a skill or a process, it’s not a slogan or motto, it is in fact a culture! It’s an attitude that demands people think, contribute and collaborate. It’s an approach that allows ideas to ferment, grow and develop. It’s a perspective that requires senior management, middle management and staff to be a two way street on which ideas are heard no matter where they come from. Yes, you still need to have management controls in place (you can’t jump on every idea that gets put forward or bend with the wind to every new idea), but those controls need to be connected to a willingness to move forward, an understanding of what the seeds of “value” look like and an attitude that embraces change.

So, this post isn’t directly a story about one particular failed project, instead this post is a tip of the hat to all the good ideas that could have delivered significant value, but were unfortunately, the victims of a stale culture. RIP ideas.

For more on what cultures are and the mechanics through which cultures propagate try the following posts:

  1. Corporate culture – The invisible force that shapes organizational performance (an introduction to the role cultures play in organizations)
  2. Culture’s cogs – A look at the mechanisms through which cultures form and are propagated.