Changing the Culture of R&D

By Tamara Carleton, CEO and Founder, Innovation Leadership Board, LLC; William Cockayne, CEO and Founder, Lead|X; and, Yuriko Sawatani, Professor, Center for Leadership Strategy, Waseda University

Whether it’s open innovation, portfolio management, or customer-centered innovation, implementing any new innovation framework often means changing an organization’s culture. This special issue focuses on the underlying issues that frequently lead good initiatives to stumble: How do you change culture to support change?

The topic has its roots in an earlier special issue from Research-Technology Management (RTM) that addressed innovation portfolio management (a 2013 issue, Vol. 56, No. 5). A point raised then was that changing to a different kind of portfolio management required a more profound and broader effort of change to support it. RTM readers and members expressed interest in a more sweeping exploration, which ultimately led to this special issue on driving cultural transformation.

Every organization has a culture—a distinctive way of thinking and working together that defines the group’s norms, values, and assumptions. Culture affects large-scale change in two ways. On one end of the spectrum, culture can be a source of resistance. If beliefs and work habits are not aligned to overall goals, they can reinforce behavior that may be counterproductive to the desired change. On the other end of the spectrum, culture can become an important strategic lever that allows a group to unite and achieve new goals.

R&D has a particular role to play in an organization’s culture. Because R&D is the group at the start of the innovation process, responsible for introducing new ideas that can then proliferate to other divisions and shape corporate practice, R&D has a perhaps outsize effect on an organization’s overall culture, for good or ill. R&D can also set the tone for change for the rest of the enterprise, spreading an awareness of the need for—and possibility of—productive change.

For change to stick, leaders must commit to instilling a new skillset in their workforce, which in turn changes the group mindset. In our work, we take a tool-driven approach to influence behavior. Our experience has shown us that tools allow people to focus on their behavior because they are using something to direct action. As change consultants Jon Katzenbach and Ashley Harshak (2011) point out, “it is much easier to act your way into new thinking than to think your way into new actions.” Performing the new behaviors also helps the change to spread and take root. People unconsciously imitate what they see others do. As the right behaviors are repeated, they reinforce what the group views as important. These behaviors become contagious and shift attitudes over the long run.

Tools can also provide insight into the change process, as the increasing adoption of big data and the quantified self (“small data”) allows each tool’s use to be measured and tracked over time. We expect a step change in R&D practice in the coming decade as big and small data merges with a rise in new productivity tools. We are already seeing a renewed focus on tools among companies in Silicon Valley. Asana, a software startup, has reintroduced a team checklist, which recasts personal tasks as part of a shared consensual model of advancement. At Google Ventures, the investment arm of Google, design sprints and prototyping tools are used to reinforce user-centered behavior so that new products can be tailored to meet specific user needs.

We see service design as another area ripe for R&D culture change. The process of servitization is proving to be a reawakening for companies, and practitioners and managers in service design have also begun to use more tools—such as the customer journey map—to map complex systems and prod culture change.

In this issue:

Confronting Culture Clash: Building a New Consensus at Hewlett-Packard
Invited. Chuck House describes the cultural shifts accompanying HP’s dramatic self-transformation, from a leading manufacturer of electronic instrumentation to a major producer of mainstream computers.

Creating Cultural Change in a 115-Year-Old R&D Organization
Leslie Christensen outlines the steps Timken R&D took to improve its communication and alignment with business units and streamline its decision-making processes.

Creating a Culture of Productivity and Collaborative Innovation: Orion’s R&D Transformation
Robert Thong and Timo Lotta show how Orion built a new culture through a comprehensive reorganization and a series of incremental initiatives.

Open Innovation at NASA: A New Business Model for Advancing Human Health and Performance Innovations
Jeffrey R. Davis, Elizabeth E. Richard, and Kathryn E. Keeton describe how NASA’s Health and Human Performance Directorate transformed itself and integrated open innovation tools through a systematic, stepwise process.

Also, in his inaugural column, Christian Crews of AndSpace Consulting talks about why organizations need to Kill the Official Future.

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