How German companies live innovation culture
The "Aftwork Innovation", which LEAD Innovation held on 20 October in Stuttgart's Hilton Garden Inn Neckar Park, was dedicated to the culture of innovation. Under the moderation of Michael Putz, founder of LEAD Innovation, representatives of seven companies from different industries discussed how difficult it is to collect and evaluate ideas from employees. However, those who master this challenge will be rewarded - but there is no magic formula for it.
What is a culture of innovation?
At the beginning of any discussion it is important to clarify what you are actually talking about. Although the term "culture of innovation" is familiar to everyone, it also has different meanings for different people. That is why Michael Putz clarifies at the beginning of the discussion at the second "Aftwork Innovation":
- Innovation is the sum of invention and market success
- Culture, on the other hand, is a common feature of a group. That could be the clothes or a language.
The culture of innovation is therefore the common way in which innovations are developed. This is not the best thing for many companies. Cheeky startups launch novelties at a rapid pace and some of them grow into corporations within a few years. Established companies not only make them look old, they often completely oust them from the market. Or they buy a promising startup and manage NOT to abandon their acquisition and idea. Good ideas can also be bought, but often a startup shatters the corporate culture of the financier. The promising new foundation will then be as perdu as the Invest. The company culture has failed, so to speak.
These three levers are changing the culture
But how can culture - ergo also change the culture of innovation? Michael Putz revealed to the discussion participants.
There are three things that can shape culture. That is what is allowed, what is able and what is willing.
Applied to the culture of innovation this means: Own employees may have ideas. They are taught how to come up with such ideas - for example with creativity techniques. And: Employees are motivated to have ideas and possibly to pursue them further. A quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry fits the latter point: "If you want to build a ship, don't round up men to get wood, assign tasks and divide up the work, but teach men the longing for the vast, endless sea".
Creation instead of specifications
Many companies have not yet reached the longing for the sea - in other words, "wanting". They are still stuck in the two preceding stages "may" and "ability". One participant confirmed this on the basis of his own situation. "With us it fails because of the ability, because our employees are used to work off a requirement specification. But a specification sheet is already a ready-to-use product that only exists on paper." He himself wanted to arouse the longing of his colleagues by describing use cases. "But I keep coming up against limits," confessed the company representative. The error was located in internal communication, which does not even exist in his company in this form. "Our customers are often better informed about what we want than our own employees," he sighed. But: problem, recognized, problem averted. He now knew which screws to turn. And: "We must definitely take a step back." Nevertheless, a decisive step has been achieved solely by "being allowed". "Some time ago, we thought it was innovative to execute a customer order." Now be but in a different way.
No head for new things
After this contribution, a brief discussion relaxed as to whether the employees were allowed and able to "want" at all. One participant said: "Our boss writes a newsletter every Saturday, but many employees don't even read it." They would be so caught up in their daily work and busy keeping to deadlines that they would have no head for the boss's information. Although there are things to read that will affect your job in a few years or even earlier.
Employees must then be able to have a free mind in order to think differently than they are used to, according to the insight. One of the participants was even able to support this thesis with practical experience. "When the employees were working at 100 percent capacity, no ideas came up. When the workload was reduced a little, the inputs came." One has to let one's colleagues breathe - but in everyday business life many only dream of such a situation.
Brainstorming desk with the boss
But the lack of ideas is not only due to the high workload. But also as already briefly explained before at misunderstandings in communication. Here, one participant provided an interesting example of a company with 200 employees and a brainstorming desk. This is a table in the office of the CEO and any employee who has a good idea can sit down there and tell the boss about it. As far as this is of course in the office and is not bound by other dates. According to the participants, this facility would have many advantages:
- The employee thinks about his idea before he goes to the boss. This puts a stop to the flood of so-called "good" ideas that employees make available to customers via digital innovation platforms, for example. Because who wants to embarrass the boss with the unfermented?
- The employee receives direct, personal feedback on his idea. Digital communication in particular ignores numerous facets of interpersonal communication and often leads to misunderstandings.
- This open-door policy also has an impact on the corporate culture as a whole. The possibility of walking in with the boss without prior notice is evidence of flat hierarchies.
"However, the boss must also be there," said one participant. Of course, such a brainstorming desk cannot be implemented in large companies either.
Individual approach desired
Another discussant was able to come up with experiences from his own company. There one follows a multichannel approach regarding the collection of ideas. Ideas can therefore not "only" be formulated and discussed via a web platform. It's personal. "The art is to address different people in different ways," said the participant. Everyone is different. The multichannel approach is extremely complex. "But it's worth it."
Digital is not the best choice
Digital platforms or the intranet would only be suitable as idea collectors to a limited extent. For several reasons: If such an institution exists, many employees expect something from it and want to be informed. This sometimes means far too much administrative effort. If the platform is not maintained, interest in it is also lost. One participant reported a visit to a business partner. He proudly presented him with his own digital innovation platform. The fact that the latest entry for this visit, which took place in 2015, dates from 2012 was somewhat embarrassing for the company boss.
Executive ideas cost resources
Even bosses have ideas. Or the ideas of the bosses such as golf friends or sailing partners. They wouldn't always turn into bestsellers and cash cows. But sometimes only lead to unnecessary work. Because, for example, it was precisely this idea that our own research and development department rejected five years ago for good reasons. "But we still have to research because we may have overlooked something in theory," one participant described his own painful experiences. However, such ideas would then bind the resources of innovation management. Unfortunately, no solution to this problem was found this autumn evening in Stuttgart.
Evaluation of ideas is complex
If the collection of ideas is already challenging, the evaluation then puts the innovation management of many companies to another test. Because who decides which pea - pardon ideas - belongs in the potty and which in the croissant? "This is what the innovation manager does for us," said a participant in the "Afterwork Innovation" in Stuttgart. This determines which ideas are pursued and which are not. If he likes an idea, the employee has one day to clarify the idea and do research. If his concept proves its worth after another test, he has one week to further mature his idea and, if the worst comes to the worst, to get help from a colleague. If the more sophisticated concept proves itself in the second test, the employee can then devote three months to his invention. However, the innovation manager mentioned must be a very wise person, because his wrong decisions are really expensive for a company. One participant could not resist this comment.
Ideas need room for manoeuvre
How and which freedom companies give their creative employees in order to be able to follow up their brainstorms and in the best case let them mature into innovations is completely different in the seven companies represented in Afterwork Innovation. One participant reported on a division of an idea giver's working week from four (ideas) to one (everyday work). Another from an exactly inverse relationship. "This has the advantage that this employee does his work in four instead of five days and then does almost 20 percent more," he did not mean entirely - but meant a little seriously. After all, it is also motivating to be able to pursue one's own idea.
Innovations need mistakes
Putz also addressed the error culture of companies - which is closely linked to the culture of innovation. "Doctors and pilots were asked for a study if they made a mistake in the last 12 months." The results for the two professions in which wrong decisions can be fatal were as follows: 90 percent of the pilots confessed to a mistake, while the doctors' result was 10 percent. Putz conjectured: "This is probably because in one cockpit one person draws the other's attention to a mistake. "For your own interest alone." This would be different in the operating theatre. According to Putz, only a few people present would dare that the chief surgeon is making a mistake. And the person concerned is usually not communicative either, because he or she is not conscious.
First-Time-Right is an iron principle
"It is pointless to deny making mistakes," said the founder of LEAD Innovation. A realization that unfortunately is not yet lived in many companies. Because the "First Time-Right" guideline still prevails in many minds of managers and employees. Many of those present were arrested in this "First Time-Right" principle, although some also reported being allowed to make mistakes. "It's always the question of where mistakes happen," said one. One could often learn something from a lapse in a very early project stage. "However, if the mistake happens shortly before the going public, it is usually very expensive," he said.
Conclusion: How German companies approach the topic of innovation culture
There is much talk of a culture of mistakes and innovation. Everyone wants to be open and tolerant. However, it is extremely difficult to live this in everyday business life. This was demonstrated by the after-work innovation in Stuttgart. However, in view of the many different approaches that the participants discussed there, it also becomes apparent that many German companies know that innovation culture and error culture are places where there is a need to catch up. And things can be tried out. After all, there is not only one way to Rome, but many, perhaps all. One participant addressed the most important aspect at the very end: "The culture of innovation a company pursues is actually of secondary importance. The important thing is to do what you say. Otherwise, something else is wanted that is actually being done."
Born and raised in Vienna. For more than 6 years she has been in charge of Business Development at LEAD Innovation with the functions marketing, sales and communication.