Culture, Risk-Taking Key to Innovation

By Pamela Babcock Jul 1, 2010
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NEW YORK—Many organizations are hardwired to reduce risks and quarantine failures, but culture, timing and the ability to stretch boundaries and take risks are key to innovation, experts said recently.

In an organization where the number-one priority is not to make a mistake, you’ll never have innovation, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Board Chair Shelly Lazarus told attendees June 23, 2010, at The New York Forum, a summit of business leaders and industry experts, held here.

“You have to create that environment where it’s safe to fail and where it’s okay to fail,” Lazarus said, adding that behind all great ideas, there’s an unreasonable person—someone to whom everyone says “sit down, we don’t need that.”

Innovation can bring everything from new services to new technology to new foodstuffs and new forms of social organization. During the session, panel members with a range of innovation experience shared insights into key characteristics of innovative organizations.

Culture, Timing Are Key

When it comes to innovation, culture matters at all organizations, from startups to large companies. But changing culture is difficult and “really does require leadership,” noted Jonathan Miller, chairman and CEO of the digital media group and chief digital officer for News Corp. in New York.

Timing surrounding innovation is key, Miller said. “When you think about innovation, even if you have a sense of where to go, the timing and nuance is really important. You really have to be able to boil it down to specific products.”

Panel moderator Quentin Hardy, national editor for Forbes, noted that at a recent conference, Apple CEO Steve Jobs mentioned how it carefully timed the iPad launch. “They tested the learning with the iPhone, and the iPhone became an environment in which to test the iPad,” Hardy said.

Taking the “or” Path

Social entrepreneur Daniel Lubetzky, CEO of Kind Snacks in New York, said the essence of innovation “is people who are introspective and question themselves and question their environment for assumptions that maybe should be challenged.”

Lubetzky likes to challenge the idea that you have to either pursue this path or that path, rather than both.

He said historically, companies assumed that you either pursued profit or good, but noted how his company’s PeaceWorks program “brings flavors together in conflict regions and uses this as a force for social change.” It offers a line of spreads produced in Israel with cooperation between Israelis, Arabs and other neighbors with hopes that personal contact between the groups will help shatter cultural stereotypes and help people live together peacefully.

Dispelling False Stereotypes

Tech entrepreneur and academic Vivek Wadhwa, a senior research associate with the Labor and Work/Life Program at Harvard Law School, said a common misperception is that “innovation is a young college dropout developing the next Google or a scientist sitting in a lab.”

Wadhwa, also an executive in residence and adjunct professor at Duke University, said attendees were “more typical of the entrepreneur than is Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or some college dropout” since most entrepreneurs come from the workforce. The average tech entrepreneur isn’t 19, but 30 years old; the average entrepreneurs in health foods and other high-growth industries are 40, Wadhwa added.

“Almost everybody in this room can innovate,” Wadhwa said. “There are plenty more innovators here in this room than you’ll find in any block of Silicon Valley.”

Power of Unreasonable People

Innovation requires not only unreasonable people, but also a culture of experimentation, Lazarus said.

“You’ve got to be brave enough to go out there with an idea and try it because you’re not going to know until you go out there into the marketplace,” Lazarus added.

When her company launched The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty that features size 12 women in their underwear, Lazarus said the Unilever marketing head in charge of the campaign received an e-mail from the head of Unilever in Japan that said, “I don’t think you understand. In Japan, we don’t like fat women.”

The marketing head stood up to the criticism, noting that the campaign was exciting, interesting and “the right thing to do,” Lazarus said.

Pairs, Wild Ideas and More

At ad agencies, people tend to work in pairs since the product typically involves art and words. And that’s a good thing, Lazarus said, since two people can stand up for each other’s ideas.

When you have two people working together, “one makes the other great … and I’ve found out a way to always keep them in pairs and to celebrate people who have wild ideas, even if they don’t go anywhere,” Lazarus said.

Lubetzky said when it comes to ideas, he likes to separate the brainstorming phase from the analysis phase since it’s really important “to not be saying why this will not work. Unless you’re getting these really crazy ideas, you’re actually not tapping the potential.”

Safety Net and Pulling the Plug

If you institutionalize innovation at your company, do you also have to institutionalize the hedge or your safety net when innovating?

Miller said it’s important to know that at any point in time, there are a couple of big mistakes “that if you make them you’re done, you’re out, and you have to know what those are.” But, he added, “You also have to know where your degrees of freedom are.”

Lazarus said it’s critical to be willing and quick to admit when you’re wrong and pull out. “The ability to pull the plug creates a much more innovative organization because it gives you courage. But most people are very reluctant to pull the plug on an idea they’ve fallen in love with,” she said.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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