5 key factors to consider in leading a culture of innovation

by | Feb 7, 2018

Leading a Culture of Innovation

The latest addition to the Cambium team, Dr Dave Watson has, by way on introduction, written a number of short articles intended to provoke thinking and reflection by people with an interest in achieving sustainable innovation in their organisations.

This article is the first in a series that we will publish on the Cambium website over the coming months and in it Dave sets out the structure of the series and gives a brief insight into the upcoming content.

Between 1988 and 2017 I was a technical specialist, manager and executive in IBM R&D. I spent eight years as a computer graphics specialist, then twenty-one years as a manager and executive. All bar four years of that period were spent working in, and leading, the Emerging Technology and Research teams in the UK. The other four years were spent as a senior manager in big software development departments. My seventeen-year career leading teams focused on new ideas and challenges faced by our collaborators gave me a unique insight into the delivery of innovation in the commercial world.

One of the most common requests I received from our Briefing Centre and Client Facing teams was “Dave, can you talk about Innovation to organisation ‘X’, please”.

The reason I was rolled out to speak on the topic was because the Emerging Technology (based in the Hursley Laboratory near Winchester) was one of IBM’s lesser known gems. A team of around 50 people it evolved from the IBM UK Scientific Centre (UKSC) which was a result of IBM’s financial challenges of the early nineties. In 1993 we were told (I was a techie in the UKSC at the time) “you can continue doing what you are doing if you can get someone to pay for it”. Remember that statement, it’s an important part of my view on a ‘Culture of Innovation’.

To cut a long story short, Emerging Technology built on the UKSC’s history of innovation to become a department with an enviable record of satisfied customers, patents and demonstrators. It became one of the go-to places for the wider organisation to engage clients in discussions around the “art of the possible”. People were eager to join the team, to be part of something different, to work on their ideas with like-minded colleagues and to collaborate with commercial, government and academic organisations. In short, Emerging Technology showed that “different” was sustainable, impactful and of clear benefit to the business.

The technical evolution of the department is also worthy of some discussion. The UKSC’s initial focus was on computer graphics, image processing, and speech work. Emerging Technology in the last several years has been characterised by a totally different focus. This includes early work on sensors for the internet of things; developing products for extracting information from unstructured text; and fundamental research in distributed databases that helps create outstanding technology for data federation. “That’s no surprise, over twenty years everything has moved on” I can hear you saying to yourself. Correct, however, the shift in technology focus is something I will return to this series over the next few months as I look at the underlying cultural and organisational reasons behind the ability to change direction.

That’s the background taken care of, I hope that has sparked your interest to continue reading. It is worth pointing out that this series of posts is my personal reflections on what it takes to create, sustain and grow a “Culture of Innovation”. The conclusions I draw are the result of living with the day-to-day challenge of sustaining a unique capability within a large corporation and working with a wide range of industry clients. It includes navigating the tricky waters of changes in such things as corporate emphasis, personnel changes in finance, and management reporting lines. It’s not some idealistic view of a utopian “Department of Innovation”, nor is it a checklist, a recipe book, or a series of steps to be followed. It is grounded in the experience of practical issues faced in a real, dynamic, fast moving industry.

The “Leading a Culture of Innovation” series will be my personal take on five topics:

1) People – the key role that personnel play in delivering innovation.

2) Management – how management oversight and focus affects outcomes.

3) Processes – often overlooked, vital, but too little attention paid to appropriateness.

4) Rewards – it’s not just about money, kudos is also a reward.

5) Collaboration – no organisation can do things in isolation, but choose wisely.

A thread through all of these is an all pervasive factor: barriers. Within each there are pitfalls, obstacles, real and imaginary constraints, and impossible blocks. Although potentially worthy of a blog in its own right, I believe the ‘barriers’ more often than not relate very much to the individual topics and I will be addressing then in their specific context through the series.

As a someone passionate about innovation and its role in improving all our lives – I would be happy to get your feedback, comments and any questions – drdave@cambiumllp.com

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