How do you make a culture of innovation stick?

100%Open is not a culture change agency, it’s an open innovation company whose mission is to connect the suits and the sneakers. So how come we get involved in many transformation and learning programmes? The answer to this question provides a clue as to what innovation culture is and how to change it. Permanently.

We started working with Oxfam in 2015 and have run Crowdicity communities with the NGO that have helped to engage and energise decision-making about innovation and change. Likewise, we have run such ‘Colleague Crowds’ with the Red Cross, Merz, IHG, Lego and also public crowds with UBS, Ford, P&G, and many others. In each of these cases, we noticed a curious by-product of our online communities. Sure we found exciting new SME technologies, sourced stunning new ideas and co-created with brands’ consumers. But also something good happened to our clients’ cultures.

It is fair to say that the default setting for most large organisations is not open and transparent. For very good reasons, there are constraints on social media expression, intellectual property, and trade secrets. It’s often a good idea to err on the side of caution. Brand owners are often more comfortable researching their consumers at arm’s length rather than engaging them directly. Colleagues across company departments or geographies are often not incentivised to collaborate and co-create across the silos. For these cultural reasons, open innovation comes as a bit of a shock. All of a sudden, you are asked to open up your company’s inadequacies (aka innovation requirements) and ask for help from total strangers. Colleagues are invited to collaborate on a whole range of issues and empowered to voice their opinions in a way that can circumvent middle managers. CEOs open themselves up to be more visible and accountable.

In our programmes, we provide some guidance on the appropriate skills and mindsets that produce what we call ‘business empathy’. Nevertheless, it is the experience of acting differently that has a profound effect on employee and leadership attitudes and practices. Our clients report that the process of taking part in open innovation programmes is a transformative experience. Research Managers enjoy the realtime conversation with consumers. Engineers get new perspectives from the marketing team. R&D specialists are inspired by working with innovative SMEs and top academics.

It is this way that we learned that companies need to attack culture change obliquely. When it comes to innovation, training sessions, internal comms programmes and ‘Google Fridays’ can get you so far. But encouraging people to act in new ways towards productive outcomes is a whole different level. The latest neuroscience gives us a clue why this works. New behaviours are learned by acting them out, much as muscle memory works for fine motor skills. This is why Millard Fuller had it right. Going through the initially uncomfortable experience of collaborating across boundaries forges new neural pathways, especially if the rewards are positive.

In one of our Oxfam crowds, Oxfam Ovation, we were asked to look at ways of making savings for the NGO. It would have been a conventional choice to commission a large consultancy to perform analyses and make recommendations for cuts. But Oxfam believed that the 100%Open approach of asking employees for their ideas could be less culturally damaging. It also turned out to be very productive, with new ideas from fuel-saving to IT outsourcing being actioned. The CEO and board felt emboldened to hold transparent ‘ask me anything’ sessions on the Crowdicity platform. These were a success and a clear indication of a change of culture to a more open, innovative and transparent place.

In conclusion, when you embark on your new crowd project you may get more than you bargained for. In a good way.

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