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Transforming your culture? Why innovation and productivity can’t be friends

An opinion piece by James Garriock, Executive Director

“We’re 18 months into our culture transformation project and we want to know whether we’re getting there,” said the CEO, looking at me quite earnestly. Unfortunately, the desired culture of the organisation consisted of less than half a dozen words, one of which was “synergy”.

Fortunately, with some in-depth interviews and focus groups Insync was able to assist the company and provide clear insight to the board.

However, in formulating its desired culture, the organisation hadn’t considered that some of its goals would actually work against other ones – and that the tension between two desirable goals was increasingly becoming a problem.

Worse still, the two goals are the most fashionable things in Australian corporate culture at the moment: productivity and innovation.

At a high level, productivity and innovation are friends. Innovation makes us more productive. Innovation is finding ways to do things differently, more quickly, automating tasks and reducing waste. It’s easy to see how these two found themselves side by side in the company’s goal set.

Let’s think about a culture of productivity for a moment. To have high productivity an organisation needs a strong work ethic. Individuals need to be highly focused, diligent and accountable. Production needs to be constant, measured and monitored. Performance targets must be met and swift and decisive action needs to be taken when they are not met. Most of employees’ time is spent doing the work that gets measured. In short, productivity-focused organisations are output focused.

Innovation cultures feel different. Do you get your best ideas while working to tight deadlines or while you’re in the shower? Innovation, sometimes called “corporate creativity” is non-linear, sometimes chaotic, often inefficient, non-quality assured, contemplative, iterative, risky and wasteful. For an innovation-based organisation, look no further than CSIRO. If we were to measure output on a daily or even annual basis then sometimes they wouldn’t meet their targets… but then one day they invent Wi-Fi.

Therefore, though productivity and innovation seem like friends, at an individual level they often work against one another.

Why can’t we have our cake and eat it too? First of all ask yourself: how hard is it to move from the productive to the creative mindset while at work? Most people have great difficulty stopping what they’re busy at and dreaming up a creative way to run a workshop, or to write a thought piece for a newsletter (!) Why?

For those who studied psychology at university, remember interpreting brainwaves? Brainwaves are why innovation and productivity don’t play nicely together. If you have a hard working, output focused culture, then you’re likely to have a predominance of beta waves, whereas alpha waves (and perhaps Gamma waves) are highly related to creativity.

Have you ever rushed into an important presentation and fluffed it? Later on, you probably realised that you weren’t “on”, that your head was still too busy with the preparation. That’s because you were still in a beta state of mind. On the other hand, what about those times when you are completely present in the moment and performing at your peak – that’s the alpha state which is also associated with creativity.

We’re not neuropsychologists at Insync but we can provide new ideas and perspectives on what’s getting between you and your desired organisational culture. They’re always inspiring conversations.

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