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Self-Sustaining Innovation: How To Keep Innovation Alive After The Consultant Leaves

Self-Sustaining Innovation: How To Keep Innovation Alive After The Consultant Leaves

| On 04, Dec 2000

By Charles W. Prather, Ph.D.


Leaders in Research & Development usually want consistently higher levels of innovative outcomes from their organizations than they normally experience. Attempts at “shotgunning” the problem may produce sporadic results, but generally innovative outcomes diminish when the shotgun is put away. A better way to sustain Innovation is to make it as much of the value system as, say, honesty and integrity. The author shows that this requires making Innovation a high organizational value, with specific actions leaders can take to make it happen.


The difficulty of making Innovation self-sustaining results from the need to change corporate values for Innovation in the three arenas of (1) Education, (2) Application, and (3) Environment, and then to implement each of them using tangible supports in the (1) Awards given, (2) Taboos enforced, and (3) Rituals observed. This means improving the organizational culture to one that sustains Innovation.

This article explores the challenge of finding ways to make Innovation self-sustaining in your organization. It describes the three arenas of activity that characterize innovative organizations and uses them as a framework for creating self-sustaining Innovation. The importance of values expressed in behavior will be addressed. It presents a clear model for guiding decisions about what tangible organizational systems you can put in place to continually support behavior that leads to more innovative outcomes.

The Three Arenas of the Innovative Organization

The three arenas of Figure 1 illustrate the three arenas that characterize innovative organizations. The larger the area of overlap between the three arenas, the greater the likelihood of innovative outcomes.

The first arena is Education, and is focussed on the individual. Individual people have ideas, teams don’t and organizations don’t. Individuals are responsible for their own thinking, and the better they are at it, the better the innovative output of the organization. You might want to sponsor an educational component of any Innovation initiative to help people be better thinkers.

The second arena is Application, and is focussed on the team. Teams are formed to solve problems or take advantage of opportunities, and a shared problem-solving process common to all team members is needed.

The third arena is Environment, and is focussed on the organization (leadership). The climate for Innovation is the perception of “what it is like to work around here,” and flows directly from the values expressed in behaviors of the leadership. We strongly believe that the Environment arena has the greatest impact of the three on the innovative output of any organization. This view is supported anecdotally, as well as by the work of Alan G. Robinson and Sam Stern. They note that 50% of the world’s supply of engineers live and work in Russia today, but not nearly 50% of the Innovations come from Russia, primarily because of the poor environment for Innovation. They quote a Russian engineer who said, “A bad system will beat a good man every time.” Consider that in 1946 when Genrich Altschuller, a patent examiner in the Russian Navy, showed Stalin his early work that lead to the development of modern TRIZ methodology, Stalin had him thrown in prison! A number of organizations have complained to this author that in spite of “creativity training” (Education arena), there was no observable increase in innovative output. The model of Figure 1 helps explain why this is so. Without a shared team problem-solving processes and strong leadership support to build and maintain an innovative environment, increased innovative output does not result. A widely held myth is that giving employees creativity training alone will result in sustained innovative output.

The Dimensions of the Climate for Innovation

A supportive climate for Innovation is one where creativity and change are encouraged. Based on the pioneering work of Goran Ekvall in Sweden some 25 years ago, it is now possible to quantify the climate for Innovation. Ekvall’s work has been further refined and validated by Scott Isaksen and others who have clarified nine dimensions of the climate for Innovation. We have added “Value for diversity of thinking style” as another dimension, first suggested by Jack Johnson of The Smithsonian Institution as an important dimension. Although not in Ekvall’s original dimensions of climate, we agree with Johnson’s suggestion, and include it here. In our work with research organizations, we have found the first four dimensions listed below most often are in greatest need of improvement. After the first four, the remaining dimensions are listed in no particular order.

  1. Risk-taking (To what degree is it okay for a well-reasoned attempt to not meet expectations when trying something new?)

  2. Trust and Openness (To what degree do people feel safe speaking their minds and offering different points of view?)

  3. Idea time (To what degree do people have time to think things through before having to act?)

  4. Idea support (To what degree are resources made available to give new ideas a try?)

  5. Valuing diversity in thinking style (To what degree do we demonstrate value for others who think differently from ourselves by including them in the business process?).

  6. Challenge & Involvement (To what degree are people challenged by their work and to what degree are they emotionally involved, and committed to the work?)

  7. Freedom (To what degree do people free to decide how to do their jobs?)

  8. Playfulness and humor (How relaxed is the workplace? Is it okay to have fun?)

  9. Absence of Interpersonal Conflicts (To what degree do people refrain from engaging in interpersonal conflict or ‘warfare’?)

  10. Debates (To what degree do people engage in lively debates about the issues?)

Not only are the first four dimensions the ones usually needing the most improvement, but we strongly feel they are the ones that are the most important in shaping the climate for Innovation.

Looking at the model of Figure 2 shows why we believe this is so. In the model, the right-most process step is implementation, and that is where organizations most often fall short in the Innovation process. The dimensions of climate that we feel most control implementation are Risk-Taking, Trust & Openness, and Valuing Thinking Style Diversity. It is during implementation that serious resources are consumed, and people want to feel safe in allocating resources on ideas that may never deliver a dollar to the bottom line. In short, it must be OK to not fully meet expectations when giving new ideas a try. Others have said, and we repeat the importance of making lots of small mistakes early so they can be corrected at low cost in order to avoid making the biggest mistake of all – missing the target. If the people associated with non-successes get punished, you will find few people willing to step out and try new things. Closely allied with Risk-taking is Trust & Openness. Trust & Openness with the leadership is so intertwined with Risk-taking that it is difficult to think of them separately. Valuing Thinking Style Diversity will lead organizations to assign the right mix of talent to the Innovation team at the right time in the process. Ignorance of this important factor often results in the wrong mix of people assigned to projects with disappointing outcomes.

So, how does one increase the innovative output of the organization in a way that is self-sustaining? It means instilling an effective set of values supporting the Innovation process within the organization that will continue long after the consultant leaves. Lets look at the “soft stuff” of values and how they contribute to the “hard stuff” of bottom line business results.

Values-101 (The Basics)

Values are those things given status and high priority within the organization. Another way of saying “climate of Innovation” is to say a “climate that values Innovation.” Values are good, positive things. But since specific values always compete for our allegiance in a world where we can never do everything we would like, our real values are reflected in our day-to-day choices. An organization that values Innovation then must choose Innovation over other values such as predictability, low risk, efficiency, and having to know all the minute details. An organization’s climate for Innovation, then is a result of its real values expressed in the choices it makes. To build a climate of Innovation in your organization requires that other competing and especially conflicting value-preferences take a back seat. For example, risk-taking is one of the most important dimensions of the climate for Innovation, yet many organizations send mixed messages like, “take risks but don’t fail.” If every single R&D initiative succeeded brilliantly, you can bet the advances are baby steps forward and are more adaptive in nature than innovative. Take a look at the choices your organization makes and the messages they send, then see how well – or poorly – those choices support the nine dimensions mentioned above.

In his fascinating book Tim O’Connell shows that most often values flow from the group to the individual,. When new individual joins a group, they either adopt the values of the group, they reject the values of the group and eventually leave the group, or in very rare cases, they transform the group so that it adopts the values of the newcomer. When we experience a particular value-preference and see that it “works,” we tend to embrace that value as a priority of our own. Values are adopted as a result of experiences,not by verbal instruction, and such experiences always happen in groups. Finally, the group proclaims its value-preferences through stories and legends and through the body language of gesture and ritual.

Recall some of your experiences when you first joined your company or group (e.g. Safety meetings, or perhaps basic training about your new company and its history). What were the messages you received from them? Think about the stories and legends you heard. Who were the heroes and how did they become heroes? Who were the outcasts and how did they become outcasts? An outstanding example of using stories to help inculcate 3M’s value for Innovation is their handbook, 3M Innovation Chronicles. It is a small but expertly crafted work that speaks volumes about the priority 3M places on Innovation, and it gives specific examples of what people have done to become the corporate heroes. At 3M, their Grass Roots Innovation Team (G.R.I.T.) uses it to help newcomers quickly develop an understanding and appreciation for Innovation as a core 3M value.

What messages did you receive from the unspoken but clear ‘body language’ of your new organization? What specific behaviors did you observe? How were people treated, how strongly was the pecking order enforced? In one telecommunications company a newcomer arrived early and took an empty seat for a technical review, only to be told quietly but firmly that his seat was always the lab director’s and he must move. Through events, stories, and ‘body language’ your values were shaped to match those of the group, or you left the group. Less likely is that you transformed the group to your values.

Examples of Strong Corporate Values

Ask any DuPont employee what it’s highest corporate value is, and they will instantly say, “Safety.” At FedEx it might be “On-time delivery”, and at American Express it is “Customer service.” Would the importance of any of these values change if the whole leadership team were replaced overnight? Probably not. When the stated value has taken deep roots within the organization the value does not change, even with large changes in leadership. What is the highest corporate value for your organization? How do you know? If asked, would most employees answer the same way? You might ask participants in a meeting to write down the three top values in your organization. Did anyone list “Innovation?” You might then ask what it would take for them to be able to list “Innovation” in the top three.

Creating a Value-Supporting System

Values Become Real Only When Supported By
Awards, Taboos, And Repetitive Reinforcement.

Consider the model of Figure 3. It displays the chosen value as an intangible, and it displays tangible supports for the value as legs of a three-legged stool. The three “support legs” are (1) Awards, (2) Taboos, and (3) Repetitive Reinforcement. The stated value is the “talk” of management while the tangible supports legs are the “walk” of management. In an ideal world, the “walk” of management matches the “talk,” meaning that management’s choices reflect the values they espouse. When there is a large disconnect between the “talk” and the “walk” management loses credibility and cynicism about the stated value results. One company talked about “quality” as a high corporate value, only to ship substandard product when they were in an oversold condition. You can see the problem.

Awards are things given employees for actively supporting the value, usually done in a public way. Taboos are specific behaviors that are driven from the organization because they don’t support the stated value. When enforced, taboos put “teeth in the law” and everybody knows it. Stories based on an enforced taboo become part of the stories and legends mentioned above. Enforcing a taboo always causes pain and suffering, and that’s why it is so difficult to do. When taboos are not enforced people pay lip service to the value, and management loses credibility. Repetitive Reinforcements are events that occur on a timetable or schedule and provide regular reinforcement that the value under discussion is of importance to the organization. Within DuPont safety has long been regarded as one of the highest corporate values. This is so because management truly “walks the talk” of safety. There is a very strong underpinning for safety by the tangible supports of (1) Awards, (2) Taboos, and (3) Repetitive Reinforcement. At DuPont there are Awards for every employee on company sites which work injury-free for a given number of employee-hours, there are safe driving awards, even special safety awards at times. The Taboos are well known and honored. It is a strong taboo to break a safety rule. People know and honor the phrase, “You will work safely or you will work somewhere else.” For Repetitive Reinforcement there are monthly safety meetings, monthly safety and housekeeping inspections and reports, and monthly reports of safety statistics are published company-wide.

Making Innovation a Value

Creating a self-sustaining organizational climate for Innovation means transforming the group’s value system by making and supporting “Innovation” as a real value. This means that leadership must “walk the talk” if Innovation is to become a self-sustaining value. Ask yourself what specifically you might do in the areas of Awards, Taboos, and Repetitive Reinforcements to support in a tangible way “Innovation” as value for your organization. Each of us is far more impactful than we believe, so even if you are not the Vice President of Research & Technology or the Lab Director, you can make an important difference right where you are. As a start, put the word “Innovation” in the value cloud of Figure 3, then complete the table below for Awards, Taboos, and Repetitive Reinforcements. Shown in the table are just a few examples of how you might complete it. Every organization will have its own set Awards, Taboos, and Repetitive Reinforcements that are appropriate and unique to it.

Table 1. Supporting the Value of Innovation Worksheet



Repetitive Reinforcements

What we already do

We have awards for delivering results.

Nothing: No one suffers by displaying behaviors that hinder Innovation.

We always mention that we are an innovative company each year in the annual report.

What we could do to better support Innovation

Award leaders for good team cohesion and good decisions. Award people for taking appropriate risks, before the outcome is known. Many, many others

Drive behavior from the organization that works to hinder Innovation. E.g. taking credit for others’ ideas, saying “no” to ideas instantly, working on the wrong problem, stopping with the first good idea, failure to get sponsors. Many others

Sponsor monthly Innovation meetings to teach techniques, celebrate milestones, honor leaders who support Innovation. Put an “Innovation” column in your company newspaper. Start every meeting with a short Innovation message. Have an Innovation message appear upon computer log-in.

Barriers to implementing what we want to start doing

– Agreement from top leadership to support the new award system.

Performance rating system change to include the new rating criteria. Getting management on board to support the new performance rating criteria.


Ask yourself, (1) What awards do we currently have for Innovation, (2) What behaviors will get you punished or fired because they hinder Innovation, and (3) How do we constantly and routinely remind people of the importance of Innovation? You will find it hardest to institute punishments for behavior that you wish to drive from the organization. Driving the Taboo behavior from the organization is likely to mean driving specific people from the organization, and that causes pain, and inflicting pain accounts for the difficulty. Tino Martella, CEO of the Chicago YMCA received the 1997 George Land World Class Innovator Award on behalf of his organization because of the Innovations that resulted after changing an entrenched mindset of those in longtime leadership positions. He ultimately had to announce, “We are going to change the people, or we are going to change the people.” It ultimately resulted in a few terminations with the attendant pain, but it got results. Sometimes the chef must break a few eggs to make an omelet.

Fill in Table 1 with what you do today in the three areas to support Innovation. You will want to consider the 10 dimensions of the climate for Innovation and the three arenas of Figure 1 as you go about this task. Then enter what you might start doing to better support

Innovation in the three support legs. Engage people at all levels of your organization in thinking this through. Next, list the barriers in moving to the desired state from the current state in each of the three areas. Next you might consider developing teams to tackle specific ways to overcome the barriers in each of the three areas. Don’t overlook the important work of leadership in finding ways to celebrate milestones and make heroes of the people who most helped the organization become more innovative. Innovation is not a one-shot event, it is a journey without an end. Instilling the values that support Innovation, and then clearly “walking the talk” is a distinguishing mark of the transformational leader who can imbue the group with his/her values and create an innovative organization that can fly on its own after the consultant leaves.


Charles W. Prather is President of CW Prather Associates, Inc. located in Annapolis, MD. He served for some 24 years in numerous R&D and management positions at DuPont and was appointed Manager of the DuPont Center for Creativity & Innovation upon its formation. He earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from N.C. State University and has received training from some of the world’s experts in creativity and Innovation. More than 80,000 copies of his book, “Blueprints for Innovation” have been sold. His clients appear on the Fortune 500 list. Contact him through his web site:

  1. Robinson, Alan G., and Stern, Sam. Corporate Creativity. San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler, 1997.

  2. Clark, Dana, Jr., Personal Communication, Ideation International. Detroit, 1998.

  3. Isaksen, Scott G.; Dorval, Brian K.; and Treffinger, Donald J. Creative Approaches to Problem-Solving. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall-Hunt Publishing Company, 1994.

  4. This dimension was originally stated as “Interpersonal Conflicts” which is negatively correlated to the climate for Innovation. We have reversed it here to reflect a positive correlation.

  5. Prather, Charles W., and Gundry, Lisa K. Blueprints for Innovation. New York: American Management Association, 1995.

  6. O’Connell, Timothy E., Tending Your Own Garden: How to Raise Great Kids. Allen, Texas: Thomas More, 1999.

  7. 3M Company, 3m Innovation Chronicles. St. Paul, MN, 1997.

  8. The Innovation Network’s web page at: