Sam Dickinson has worked in the world of organisational innovation for more than 15 years and leads Google’s customer transformation efforts in EMEA.
While technology may take centre stage when it comes to digital transformation, even the most groundbreaking technological innovations are only there to present an opportunity. In other words: technology creates the conditions for change, but it’s people that make it happen.
That’s where your organisational culture comes in. The way a team works together dictates how they use their tools, and this is set by leadership, which is why leaders are so important to successful digital transformation.
To uncover how to create such a culture thriving on innovation, I spoke with Thomas Davies, founder and CEO at Temporall, a culture analytics company focusing on unlocking organisational insights through data.
Clear a path for change
Creativity can come from anywhere. But at established companies creativity can clash with a more traditional, risk-averse mindset that emphasises efficiency and optimisation, rather than innovative thinking, experimentation, and learning.
People need permission and support to spend time developing their skills, and leaders can give it to them. Encouraging learning and inspiring people to engage in their own development is vital for creating change.
Davies says traditional company cultures can block innovative thinking, but even small changes in an approach to leadership can make a big difference.
“Requesting feedback on a process is one of the best ways to make innovation accessible,” he explains. “Asking people to say what works, and what doesn’t, is a simple way to light the innovation fire.”
Communicate the culture
Clarity is also key, according to Davies, who emphasises that leaders need to have a clear vision that people understand. “That begins with telling people what they need to do and why,” he continues. “So be explicit about getting teams behind a set of attributes that they know are ‘here to stay’, and that represent what you want the team to become.”
Most importantly, that vision needs to match the way a leader behaves. Acting as a role model for change has a multiplying effect that helps make transformation stick. “A leader has to be seen as authentic,” says Davies. “That is vital for a complex change programme such as digital transformation.”
Real change transcends any one person
Deep-rooted organisational culture should outlast any individual. “To truly embed transformation at a mindset level, executives need to treat this as a strategic effort,” Davies explains. “That means working beyond communicating values and behaviours, and looking to the long-term.”
To do that, organisations need to set up processes and systems that reinforce innovation. Creating the right structures signal that leadership is open to the sharing of ideas. Those processes can be as simple as setting up a model for colleagues to propose ideas, for example in weekly presentations where people can share their projects. Not only do such initiatives promote transparency, they also help people feel involved.
For Davies, the secret to systemic cultural change is to make it habitual. “Transformation depends on self-reinforcing elements,” he tells me. “In today’s dynamic business world, where talent is more mobile than in the past, it’s important to build a system that is less reliant on individuals.”
3 steps to leading cultural change
Every leader is at a different stage of the transformation, but according to Davies they all have to address three practical areas to drive a culture of innovation within their organisation:
- Recognise and reward, and allow people to take calculated risks. Shining a light on innovation, improvement, and learnings reinforces the psychological safety that gives people the permission to experiment and contribute without fear of failure.
- Be explicit that you are serious about the cultural change you are building. Through a robust internal communications plan, make it known that this is a critical element of your business strategy.
- Design processes that value innovation and creativity throughout the company, from hiring requirements to performance reviews.
Make space for innovation, role model the changes you want to see, and set up structures that help them last. It takes a team to make a success of digital transformation. And it’s up to leaders to give them the support they need to bring everyone on board.