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"The Nine Common Characteristics of Innovative Organizations"

 By Robin Cook, Organization Development Expert

Between January of 1998 and April of 1999, fifteen professionals from across the U.S., as well as from Canada and the U.K., came together to form the second class of the Innovation University Best Practices Fellowship.  During five sessions, each in a different city, we visited or heard presentations from roughly 20 of the most innovative organizations in the world.  This extraordinary opportunity to visit organizations such as Dell Computer, GSD&M, Nortel, Manco, Roberts Express, and Cirque du Soleil provided us with a wide variety of tremendous learning experiences.  In this article, I will briefly outline some key lessons the Innovation University Fellows took away from the program.

Perhaps the most striking lesson we learned was just how much these disparate organizations had in common.  Virtually every one of the organizations we visited displayed nine shared characteristics: 

 •    Strong, clearly expressed SHARED VALUES

 •    An appreciation of/for the WHOLE INDIVIDUAL and everything s/he can bring to the organization

 •    Cultures that encourage OPENNESS and PLAYFULNESS

 •    CELEBRATE SUCCESSES constantly

 •    A strong, clearly communicated sense of HISTORY

 •    Intense CUSTOMER FOCUS

 •    Clear focus on TRENDS, even those that do not seem to directly effect current businesses


Shared Values

The first common thread among the organizations we experienced was shared values.  In every case, the organization went to great lengths to constantly express, reinforce , and build these values into its culture.  In every case, it was clear that members of the organization made real efforts to live those values – they were not simply a plaque on a wall.  GSD&M, an advertising agency in Austin, provided the best example of this.  After going through an extensive values clarification process, they literally carved their core values in stone in the floor of the rotunda of their new offices.

Appreciate the Whole Individual

Every organization we visited demonstrated a clear understanding of the value each person brings to that organization and went to great lengths to encourage people to incorporate things from their “personal” lives into the professional setting.  American Greetings encourages its workers to decorate their cubicles with personal artwork, whether it is directly related to work projects or not.  New designs and art concepts have frequently resulted.  At the Smithsonian Institution’s Central Exhibit Design Facility, we were shown several examples of new techniques for construction of exhibits and displays that were adapted from extracurricular projects that employees were involved in.  Manco told us about several new adhesive tape ideas that originated from their employees’ hobbies.

Encourage Openness and Playfulness

Many of the organizations we saw practice open book management.  All go to great lengths to encourage communication throughout all levels of the organization.  Most recognize the value of random meetings and interactions and have designed their facilities to encourage such activities.  eLab (now part of Sapient) here in Chicago included a “Napatorium”, a “Leave-Me-Alone Room”, and a room where each project was displayed for feedback from other teams and individuals in its offices.  GSD&M designed its facility with numerous small meeting areas throughout, each with a unique, fun, playful décor, intended to facilitate random conversations.  Manco (located in Cleveland) has regular events with fun, often family oriented themes, including a tradition of the company president swimming across an outdoor pond every January if the company meets or exceeds its financial targets.  Many of the facilities we toured incorporated colorful, whimsical décor.

Celebrate Successes

Again, a practice common to every organization we saw.  Both GSD&M and Cirque du Soleil have prominent displays of awards throughout their building and GSD&M has a “brag board” at the main entrance.  Roberts Express has ongoing employee, contractor, and customer appreciation activities.  Manco has a regular schedule of company-wide events throughout the year to celebrate it’s accomplishments.

Clearly Communicate History

Dell Computer includes history lessons in its new employee orientation.  Their practice of sending each new employee three boxes of materials and gifts prior to their official start date includes articles and other materials that prominently feature the company’s history.  American Greetings has displays of photos and artifacts throughout its offices showing the company’s history and especially its origins.  Cirque du Soleil designed its building to use materials that are intended to remind everyone there of the group’s origins as street performers.  Every organization we visited had cultural artifacts and teaching stories related to their shared histories.

Maintain Intense Customer Focus

In response to customer requests, Roberts Express has developed software for its call center that automatically routs incoming calls back to the original call taker, so that customers always speak with someone who is familiar with their shipment.  GSD&M created dedicated, themed work spaces for their major accounts – an airport gate area for Southwest Airlines; a gas station motif for Penzoil; a giant, custom built, steel topped worktable for the Steel Industry; etc.  Cirque du Soleil designed its entire building so that all workspaces have internal windows looking out into the training and rehearsal areas.  Everyone, no matter what their function, can always look up and see what the end product is.  Sterling Consulting created a sort of “customer ombudsman” position responsible for meeting with every client at the end of the engagement and evaluating the outcome.  This person is charged with doing whatever is necessary to make things right should those outcomes not meet expectations.

Focus on Trends

American Greetings maintains several “trend rooms” which are changed every two to three months.  On a rotating basis, employee teams are charged with identifying various color, motif, and other design trends that will directly or indirectly have an impact on their product lines.  Nortel’s Corporate Design Group is charged with constantly monitoring the cutting edge in technologies to find new ways to apply those trends to its products.  While Del Computer does not develop technologies themselves, they are constantly fine-tuning their production, inventory, and other systems to enable them to be the first to market with technology developed elsewhere.

Cross Functional Teams

Nearly every organization we visited incorporated cross-functional teams and/or some form of cross functional training as a regular, formal methodology.  Perhaps the best example of this was the Nortel Corporate Design Group.  CDG (since renamed, I believe) is Nortel’s cutting edge, blue sky, five to eight year out technology design group.  Each project in development was team based, teams, at a minimum, were composed of designers, engineers, and marketing people.  One team that we met with was led by an employee with a Doctorate in the behavioral sciences – certainly not what one would expect in a high tech setting!  The impact of this approach upon the products in development was simply extraordinary.

These represent the nine most striking common characteristics of the organizations we researched.  All were in different industries.  All had different business models and structures.  Will implementing these concepts in your organization guarantee world class innovation?  Not necessarily… but you certainly won’t achieve constant, ongoing innovation without them!

Robin Cook is an Organizational Development expert located in Chicago.  

You may reach Robin by calling (773) 262-7018 or email Robin at: 
.  Click here to learn more about Robin Cook.

See Robin Cook's Molecular Model for Organization Development.

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