Grants for equipment to enable innovation in small businesses in York, North Yorkshire and East Riding

Culture is the first place to start in innovation

“Culture can be a dirty word, but without the right behaviours and values, you can’t get change,” says Ian Graham, founder and innovation consultant of VIATIC consultancy in York.

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Ian works with large and small organisations and says many of the principles of how a business becomes more dynamic are the same, regardless of size or sector.

He says that too often companies start an innovation process by sending off random teams to look at innovative companies, such as Google or Apple, to see what they do - but they pick up on superficial things such as trendy workspaces and big sofas rather than understanding the drivers of innovation.

“Innovation must be led from the top,” says Ian “as much as getting the operational side of the business to change. Leaders must totally buy into the idea – or it won’t work. That means senior people have to ‘walk the talk’ on innovation and change their own behaviours. They need to talk openly about it, try different things out and advocate a culture where experimentation is allowed and success is rewarded. Setting boundaries is important but there needs to be a space to experiment within that.”

When Ian is helping companies to be more innovative, he starts by assessing the enthusiasm for change in each department.

“You want to look at the teams in your business and see how ‘up for it’ they are to do things differently,” adds Ian. “If you have a group that really wants to change that can be a massive help – start with them and then scale out from there across the whole organisation. You also want to identify blockers and work through these, with additional tools and support.”

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He says that it is easy to under-estimate how long this process can take and be prepared to have a second or third push. It is important to embed a few changes first before bringing in more.

How does Ian measure the success of innovation? “Well this brings us to another key point – you have to start any programme by being clear about why you want innovation, what is your vision? It’s no good a leader or the executive team deciding ‘we need to be innovative’. That will not achieve anything. You have to understand where you are now and what you want it to achieve. Is it about new products and services, getting them developed more quickly, diversifying or something else. It’s the business aim that is the starting point.”

He says once clear objectives have been set then measures can be agreed for what success would look like: “Success is very much about context. What is highly innovative for a traditional organisation would be business as usual for another.

“Usually success is about people behaving differently – and eventually you can see this change. It is often hard to measure and it does take time.”

He gives one example of working with an organisation over a few years: “Towards the end you could see people thinking of ideas organically and suggesting collaborations across departments – without worrying about rank as to who was involved. They were developing new projects in a way that could never have happened before – mostly because of how people behaved, thought and interacted. All those little conversations and groups working away showed the organisation had changed VIATIC in a systematic way and that the change was embedded.”

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Ian’s final thoughts are to get teams looking at innovations happening in their sector already: “It’s very easy for people to reject innovations – they have done things a certain way for years and it’s always worked. But get them to look at what others have changed and been successful at – often all it takes is to show something can work elsewhere to get them on board.”

Ian’s top tips for innovation

  • Innovation has to be led from within the organisation, as much as being led from the top
  • New ideas have to be backed by discipline and processes for them to flourish
  • Take the temperature of your business first – if you have a team up for change, start with them and use them as examples to scale up across the business
  • Be clear why you want to innovate