Culture eats innovation for breakfast

Innovation is driving engine of sustainable growth if you’re doing the right things the right way.

To think that you might be away from innovation hype if you’re operating in Serbia, especially in traditional industry such as retailing is a one of the faultiest premises you might have. On the other hand, it’s not even a matter of hype or how many incubators, workshops or other activities you conduct in order to signal that you’re company is into innovation. It’s about doing the right things the right way.
In 2018, Delhaize Serbia had a quick start to get people acquainted with “what’s on the menu”. We started zestfully and faced Godzilla – called culture. We built an internal system of how people submit ideas, how do we select ideas, test and implement them. We established our Innovation room – as a playground for innovations. In parallel to that we did series of external activities such as hackathons, brown bag sessions, open innovation challenges and other innovation events. We did many things to create hype within our organization around innovation and we made it. Some percentage of our associates experienced it more in-detail and get to produce first innovations. Feeling was good for them. Now our people know that we are “into innovation”.
But an existing company is primarily organized for day-to-day execution of its current business processes or mission, not for search and exploration of new ideas or new business models. If you want innovation as modus vivendi in existing company, you must reshape its current ways of doing business. Reshaping means changing. When you want to change things at one point you will stumble at Godzilla and that means some serious change-management work.

Most important prerequisite to make innovation work is adequate organizational culture and culture means people.
No matter how good your innovation process is designed it’s people who have to implement it every day. So, innovation culture means that you must have thinking and behaving patterns that support innovation There comes the biggest challenge! How to get people thinking and behaving like entrepreneurs in a large corporation where everything works differently?
Innovative thinkers, which often you may find among entrepreneurs, want space to make impact and growth. They are out-of-the box and associative thinkers. They ideate themselves or scout daily for ideas that may bring growth to their business, rapidly test new ideas while taking care of scarce resources, pivot the idea towards better value and take risks (since failure is not a “no-no” thing for them). Does it sound familiar? Have you seen such person operating daily within corporation? It’s a rare bread, but if you have – that’s great! Now, our next question is whether the environment is supportive of such people.

One of the biggest impediments to ideation and innovation en général is the tendency to stick to old patterns of thinking and behaving.
It’s really hard to break down habits, assumptions and prejudices that profoundly affect how people look at a problem. If you want see opportunity where you used to see problem or just to observe situation with open eyes you have to cope with all of the above. This is not just a must-do for innovation officer, this is a big challenge for leadership as well. Many companies face reality in which employees are either not acting like entrepreneurs or senior leadership is not creating an environment where intrapreneurs can thrive.
During our first-year of our journey we found out that if we want to embed innovation in our DNA we must cope with the culture. Firstly listening to the needs and opinions of our people that are pioneers in innovation, we defined traits of our innovation culture. Secondly, having defined our ethos, we thought of a roadmap how to get there. One of the first things is of course changing our processes, procedures and KPIs to enable all of the above mentioned. And we don’t stop here. We work with people because we know people are essential for success. We work on committed and engaged individuals (both leaders and associates) that will actually live the innovation culture.

We turn to targeted people development and coaching as powerful methods in building innovation culture and tackle resistance to change.

Knowing that, for 2019 we’ve decided to accomplish it through series of workshops and coaching with mixed group of targeted stakeholders from all hierarchical levels within Delhaize Serbia.

People engaged in innovation need specific competences – knowledge and skill set they would exhibit as behavior in their daily work. Workshops are envisioned as first part of multi-level journey where we start from basic introduction in innovations to deep-dive. We give information, show examples, give individual and group exercises and learn from it. For instance, it may be that the right first step is simply to show design thinking and a lean innovation approaches and how it’s application quickly and inexpensively achieve valuable customer insights. After that, during deep-dive they get to know tools that will translate customer insight into actual innovation, that will be (or not) validated and implemented. The difference is, at these workshops, people aren’t just sitting around in a dimly lit training room waiting for the next round of snacks — instead, they’re pushing themselves to think differently.

Second part of the journey is coaching. We opted for group coaching and occasionally focus on short micro-coaching sessions, if the need arises. Group coaching is great method to build self-confidence and leadership culture of participants, to learning some new creative skills jointly, for finding out alternative ways of thinking and behaving, to overcome difficult challenges in a group setting and finally giving and getting (as objective as it can be) feedback.

In this particular case where coaching is fuel to innovation and innovation is per se “everchanging thing” – we focus on the establishment of the relationship between the coach and coachee at the first session and nurture it along the way, yet not as key aspect for success of coaching. That is one of the reasons why we opted for group coaching, to get the most of the group dynamics and undiscovered potential of people already here. Participants commit themselves to action plans created during workshops and have opportunity to once more address “what-if’s” related to those action plans. Commitment is about living it daily with their teams, irrespective whether they hold leadership position or not. We also address “leading without formal authority” issues and methods, to empower associate level team members to bring bottom-up change.

Nonetheless leadership buy-in and active involvement is prerequisite for success of such developmental program. All leadership positions are included, starting from COO whose participation was active from “Day 1” in 2018 and continues to be such in 2019. Additional accent is placed on leaders of participants in our workshops and coaching sessions. We work with them as well in order to set up micro-climate that will enable participants to exhibit change in thinking and behavior in their daily business. One of the most important thing for them is ability to fail and experiment. If you can’t fail, innovation can’t happen.

In existing companies, innovation will happen only with development of people to unleash the innovators within.
Are we there yet? No. But for sure we are making big, solid steps to get there as fast as we can. Companies that realize that will live to tell the story of past days.

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