Cultural alignment is rarely an easy task…

Introducing innovation into an existing culture can be challenging for leadership teams. In many cases, there is resistance to change regardless of the projected benefits. This can be especially true in teams that have been successful for a significant period. In short, teams get comfortable. Once they have a small set of criterion that all subscribe to it becomes both a strength and a blind spot.

What can FOAK (First Of A Kind) market adoption strategies teach us about engaging our cultures with a new innovation?

FOAK products and services have always had a unique challenge when coming to market. Often they are met with resistance, frequently the market just isn’t ready, and sometimes they are simply not understood. In 2015 Jesse Torres wrote an excellent article for Entrepreneur Asia Pacific that presented four FOAK adoption strategies. I believe that the same principles could be reinterpreted for the cultural adoption of innovation.

In today’s climate, we have platforms that seed innovation, such as Kickstarter, Gofundme, Indiegogo or RocketHub, so as individuals many of us are more comfortable with a constant stream of innovations.

But what about when the innovation is being launched internally?

Business and brand cultures can be stubbornly resistant to change. Cultures often have a delicate balance, and each one has a unique DNA that feeds off many factors. For example, some cultures have long staff tenancies, with strong familial bonds and a clear picture of who they are. Those cultures are rarely comfortable with change. Conversely, cultures that are young, excitable and agile often have high expectations from change. If roll-out isn’t managed well, they can be quick to disengage.

So how can we use strategies for launching FOAK into the marketplace, to help us implement innovation internally?

Let’s look at how Jesse Torres’ four principal methods for taking FOAK to market, could be reinterpreted for innovations and cultures.

1. Forced innovation

Within certain changes, leaders can ensure uptake by forcing the culture to adopt an innovation. This is best suited in cases where the innovation addresses a safety, regulatory or legal obligation.

In such an example, the messaging should be positive. So rather than “we have to adopt this now” a leader might communicate: “this innovation will meet our regulatory/legal/safety obligations without increasing our workload. In fact, it’s set-and-forget, so its a real no-brainer”

2. Find an alternate market

This approach makes sense when we have multiple domestic and foreign markets within reach. However, when interpreted for a culture, we are limited to a single market.

When an innovation will be a step too far for the existing culture as a whole, one option is to compartmentalise the cultural shift by creating a ‘special projects division’. This approach allows a leader to throw a cordon around a team of curious team members and give them permission to behave differently to the whole. Crucially this division must have full transparency, reporting back to the larger team. As innovation creates positive change in the special division, it gains familiarity and acceptance from the greater culture. This allows a mentality shift from a change that was being ‘explored’ to one that is being ‘tested’. Once proven, adoption is assumed by the wider group.

If you have a ‘special projects division’ or even just an ‘innovations event’ it is important to brand it, even if only internally. Creating nomenclature makes it real and empowers the wider culture with a way to talk about them as a capability, and a conduit for future growth.

A great example of a branded event is the TechnologyOne Hack Days. These all-day events give hundreds of TechOne employees the opportunity to turn their ideas into reality while introducing a healthy dose of competition. The firm runs the event across all of their offices globally. #TechOneHackDay 9.0

3. Seed the market

All markets are feeling the tsunami of change, especially in digital business tools. In this climate, even a FOAK innovation, may be simultaneously adopted by the majority of market leaders. There’s was a point, for example, at which email became suddenly and universally adopted in business. In cases like these, the case put forward for adoption is to stay competitive.

Sharing the buzz of how innovation is being adopted by competitors and delivering benefits to their clients and/or competitors changes the perception of the innovation. It creates a tacit acceptance internally that adoption is necessary to remain competitive and relevant. One strategy is to have the executive leadership team report to the board on the innovation adoption by competitors and collect supplier/customer feedback on the benefits and challenges.

4. Educate the market

Leaders assume that because their innovation solves major pain points, it will immediately resonate with potential users. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. It is important to communicate how the innovation provides a tangible benefit and then periodically remind them.

Leaders can provide upskilling workshops and refresher days for those who need it. Supporting this with an internal marketing campaign that highlights the key benefits, gives user tips, and reports on KPI targets that the innovation is employed to deliver.

In summary

Each of these approaches has merit as a cultural engagement strategy for innovation, and a leader could employ multiple strategies. Change has always been the only constant, but today, we are experiencing it at a rate more accelerated than ever seen before. Perhaps the best strategy of all for today’s climate is to foster a culture that embraces innovation as part of its identity.

One method to achieve that is to bring together the senior leadership team and some selected representatives from within the business for a strategic brand discovery/innovation process. Engage a brand strategist to facilitate a structured process in an open forum, where everyone from the janitor to the CEO has an equal voice. Have the workshop off-site, choosing somewhere interesting and different from your normal environment to help all participants engage a ‘vacation mentality’ and think outside of the box. With careful guidance, your team can reconnect to who they are as a collective, define what they really do, and agree on why it’s important. The next step is setting the goals and envisioning the brand you want to be in the future.

Once that is done–innovation can become a pathway rather than a blockage. As a culture, your team can agree on their appetite for innovation, and you can innovate your way to your agreed vision for your brand.

It then falls to your business processes to ensure you are proactive adopters or creators of innovation. This investment will need to be accountable, and so leaders must then ensure that innovation is kept visible at all levels and measure the efficacy of each project to ensure mandates are reached and celebrated.

Perhaps your innovations will lead to a FOAK discovery.