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A warm climate for team innovation

Creativity is about making new and useful connections and insights. Innovation is concerned with turning those often raw, intriguing but undeveloped ideas into value: new products, services, processes, business models, strategies, etc. We can have creativity without innovation, but we can’t have innovation without creativity. The energy we put into the dynamic relationship between these two concepts is key for people engagement and organisational performance.

The need for innovation is not enough

We have found consistently that while the need for innovation is a necessary condition, it is not sufficient. Yet senior leaders sometimes act as if making the case for innovation will drive the necessary ‘magic’ to turn ideas into action. It rarely does.

Goran Ekvall developed this concept of team (and organisational) climate for innovation back in the early 1980s, and with it a questionnaire called the Situational Outlook questionnaire (SOQ)[1]. The SOQ assesses these 9 dimensions on a scale from 0 – 300:

The degree to which people are involved in daily operations in the following ways:

  • Challenge and involvement: The degree to which people are involved in daily operations and long-term goals
  • Freedom: The independence in behavior exerted by the people in the organizations
  • Trust and openness: The emotional safety in relationships
  • Idea Time: The amount of time people can (and do) use for considering new ideas
  • Humour and Spontaneity: The spontaneity and ease displayed within the workplace
  • Conflict: The presence of personal and emotional tensions
  • Idea Support: The ways new ideas are treated
  • Debate: The occurrence of encounters and disagreements between viewpoints and ideas
  • Risk-taking: The tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity exposed in the workplace

In addition to the quantitative feedback, the SOQ asks for members’ perceptions on what helps and hinders creativity, as well as what action they’d take to improve it in their team. It also has benchmarks for least and most creative teams, for stagnant and innovative organisations, and for incremental and more radical change.

There are several things that leaders find helpful about about this framework:

  • Having team feedback against relevant benchmarks gives leaders a meaningful focus to improve innovation.
  • It channels energy within their field of influence.
  • Given the vast research on the relationships between leadership – climate – team performance, it gives them confidence that working to improve climate will bring improvement in team innovation outcomes.

We’re going to look at the first 3 dimensions today, and the remaining 6 in our next two posts.

1. Challenge and involvement

Teams improve challenge and involvement by getting people involved in interpreting strategic organisational goals and making a plan to get from today’s reality to a future aspiration.  Leaders may coach their team to connect their roles to wider organisational aims. 

Example: one leader we have worked with introduced regular story-telling sessions, where individual team members described how they’d taken action to make experiences better for their patients. These were discussed, learnt from, and the sessions became a way of integrating the team and reminding them of their purpose.

2. Freedom

Freedom is increased through clarifying desired outcomes, roles and responsibilities then sharing power and decision-making processes. Having a strong sense of challenge and involvement helps freedom because it provides the tramlines for delegating authority to act. Team members value being encouraged to generate ideas and set priorities for their own workplans. Also, because ideas often take time to develop, teams benefit from their leaders providing an ‘umbrella’ to shade these ideas from premature evaluation by more senior people. This breeds safety and confidence to explore for genuinely novel solutions.

3. Trust and openness

Over time, lack of team trust and openness can evolve into an undiscussable topic. It’s too ‘close to the bone’. To develop trust, teams must sometimes acknowledge that it is an important issue and that it’s down to them to improve it. Teams can build in more time for working together in pragmatic pairings or small groups, especially where those people have complementary problem-solving styles.

Example: A new leader of a purchasing department replaced a more directive, controlling leader. This new incumbent improved trust by getting people working together on key departmental priorities. Trust grew as people learned first to appreciate each other’s competence, and then each other’s personal differences and characters. Within 18 months, the team won a corporate team award for delivering £5 million worth of savings to the purchasing process.

All of these strategies are pragmatic and within the scope of any of us. What underpins them is a conviction that innovation matters for this team and that we are going to do something about it in the medium term: 9-12 months. They combine need, intent, perseverance and time/space for exploration. Added together, these changes become something significant. They make a difference to the feeling of being in the team and the results they deliver. People become more willing to give greater discretionary effort. It feels better to be here – we’re doing something that matters and is bringing value to others.

This is the first of 4 short, weekly posts on how middle managers can and do enable successful innovation with their teams. It’s based on our experience over the last 10 years in working with middle and senior level leaders from healthcare and defence. We have worked with leaders who have improved their team’s work climate for innovation within 9-12 months, and found that climate is a ‘lead’ indicator of innovation performance.

In these first 3 pieces we’ll concentrate on how these leaders improve their team climates. The final piece will focus on how senior leaders can support their team leaders to sustain innovation over time.

In next week’s posting, we’ll look at how leaders and their teams take practical steps to improve 3 other team climate dimensions: idea time, humour & spontaneity and interpersonal conflict. 

© Bluegreen Learning Ltd

Find out how warm your innovation climate is and what you can do to change it.

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