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Building a culture of innovation: Interview with Michael Ventura of Sub Rosa

Michael Ventura is the Founder and CEO of strategy and design practice, Sub Rosa. Alex Pavlou, Managing Director of Bamboo Crowd in New York spoke with him about how company culture and leadership is connected to its ability to innovate. Michael’s first book, Applied Empathy, will be released in May by Simon & Schuster.

Alex Pavlou: Is a culture of innovation a requirement to actually, well, innovate?

Michael Ventura: Innovation can certainly happen without a culture of innovation, but it isn’t sustainable. A large multinational client of ours was going through a dilemma that helps to illustrate this point:

The client wanted to be more innovative. They knew that the path to faster growth was going to require them to think differently about their products. That said, the business units in this company were all measured and held accountable to a quarterly P&L. Innovation had to sit within this P&L, meaning any investments in innovation needed to show profitability within a quarter or they were going to be deemed a failure. This was completely untenable and not the way innovation works. It put too much pressure on the innovation teams and, in the end, they only made small, incremental improvements because it was the only thing they could do to provide impact to the P&L. The executives of this company were frustrated that they weren’t seeing “big” innovation happening but they hadn’t changed the inherent way innovation was operationalized or measured. After working with them and discussing this issue, they were able to loosen the requirements on innovation ROI and, ultimately, those decisions empowered the teams to think about bigger innovations.

This is an example of where this sort of thing can go off the rails, but it’s also true when a company makes innovation a “nice to have” as opposed to a core part of the business. If you want to really be innovative, you have to invest in the people, processes, and principles necessary to get you there.

AP: How would you define the term “culture of innovation”?

MV: We look at it across two spectrums. On one side, you need to invest in the people, processes, and principles to sustain a culture of innovation, but on the other side, the output of those things should be products or services that validate the investment.

People are essential to the culture of innovation. That doesn’t mean you necessarily need “new” people doing this sort of work. Sometimes it’s just about reframing someone’s existing role or empowering them to take bigger leaps that will work toward the type of innovation you’re looking to develop within your organization.

Processes are another key factor. Do you actually have the right systems and processes in place to support innovation? Are you pulling in subject matter experts or research from the world outside your organization or is innovation happening in a vacuum? For us, the best companies know how to expand themselves — going wide to gather insights and inputs — but then know how to contract back into a focused effort to bring those insights to life. Innovation is not often governed successfully by overly draconian or Byzantine processes. Instead, it’s more like process with a lower case “p” — giving teams the ability to have some guidance, but also enough room for serendipity to occur.

Image of quote from Michael Ventura

AP: How do you drive innovation when there is no existing vehicle to welcome or spur change?

MV: Innovation really has to have buy in for it to work. Leaders need to overtly commit to the desire for innovation in order for it to be successful.

But when I say “leaders” I don’t just mean C-suite executives. It could be anyone in the company. You don’t need a corner office to lead, but you doneed to have a specific mindset. You have to understand that innovation comes from the will to see something change. It comes from a desire to solve a tough challenge or spur growth in a company or category. Innovation is a fire that needs constant tending. It isn’t automated.

If a company wanted to spur change the very first thing we would seek to understand would be the company leadership’s alignment around the idea of innovation. Are they all in it for the same reasons? Are they ready to do the hard, often messy work that innovation takes? Are they ready to fail? Because if not, they need to rethink if they really want to be an innovative company. The most innovative leaders I know are ones who are ready to take (smart) risks. I often tell our clients, “you either win or you learn” when you’re doing innovation. There is no “losing” — it’s all about a culture of constant improvement that gets you toward your destination.

AP: What is the key adjustment that organisations can make to support innovation?

MV: The single most important aspect is dedication. Doing it in fits and starts, or scaling back investment if you aren’t seeing a return can be tempting. You either need to commit to innovation and see it through or you shouldn’t endeavor upon it at all.

AP: What innovation advice do you have for leadership? What tools can they use?

MV: One of the most critical elements that senior leaders in companies can do to set innovation up for success is to apply empathy to their organization. I’ve spent the past several years looking at how the application of empathy can help companies see beyond themselves and bring in meaningful insights from the world around them to help spur growth and new ideas. Empathic leaders have an insatiable desire to understand the world around them. Their competitors, their customers, the context their business is operating within and more. This sort of inquisitive nature is infectious and ultimately ignites passion in those tasked with driving innovation.

Innovation can sometimes be a lonely process if we don’t seek out information from beyond our own organizations.

At Sub Rosa, this is some of the work we do most often. We work side by side with companies to help them think differently about problems and how to use our Applied Empathy methodology to get where they want to go. And if we do our job really well, as some point, we create our own obsolescence. Not because innovation is no longer needed, but more to the point, because the ability to use empathy to drive innovative thinking has become embodied in the hearts and minds of the client team. When we see that happen we know that the tools and lessons needed to drive the next chapter of growth are in place. And in that environment, innovation can be cultivated with greater ease.

Michael Ventura is the Founder and CEO of strategy and design practice, Sub Rosa. His first book, Applied Empathy, will be released in May by Simon & Schuster.

I’m a Founding Partner of Bamboo Crowd. I help our clients invest better in people and scale through Engine. I solve recruitment challenges and help our clients source the best talent across operations, business development, programme management, and technology. Ask me about good films, beards and hip hop.