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Culture Leads Innovation: Part 2 of Building a Culture of Innovation

By Joey Havens

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Innovation is a key to our future success, and we can build a culture of innovation within our own teams. This 3-part series explores what it means to build a truly innovative culture at your business or firm. Make sure to read Choosing to be Open Minded, Part 1 of Building a Culture of Innovation, to understand the entire journey.

Sunday, I went to a church where my son Brandon and his family attend. CeCe was not feeling well so I was meeting Brandon, Margie and the kids there. On the way to the church, I got a text that they were not going to make it as they had been up all night with the baby. Sully (Sullivant) is four months old now and our sixth grandkid. As I sat in the parking lot realizing I barely knew anyone at this church, I started thinking about heading home. I did not have a sense of belonging and was really dreading having to meet a lot of new people or explain why I was alone visiting today. Lots of excuses go through our minds when we do not have that sense of security—our sense of belonging.  

I went in and sat alone as the service started. A lady sitting next to me introduced herself and her husband and welcomed me to the service. The usual questions came, “Are you visiting with us today?” The service was being conducted with the aid of a brochure with all of the activities, readings and songs inside of it for the service. Of course I did not have one and it felt awkward trying to follow along. But after about five minutes, the sweet lady next to me handed me her copy and began sharing with her husband for the rest of the service. This kind gesture increased my sense of belonging and greatly enhanced my worship experience. 

This experience brought home to me the power of the second key to building a culture of innovation—a strong Sense of Belonging. My experience (and luck) says you don’t start with “We are going to be innovative.” You must start with culture, because it is a strong culture that leads to innovation. Yes, you’re reading that correctly: innovation is actually an outcome of a strong culture where there’s a strong sense of belonging. 

What we’ve experienced is that when people feel safe, they naturally provide new, creative and innovative ideas, especially when you are intentional in growing a culture to be even better. We will take risks when we feel safe to take them. We will risk challenging the status quo when we feel safe. Don’t underestimate the cancer of conflict avoidance in your firm or business. When we feel safe, have a strong sense of belonging, we engage in the mission and innovation of our team and company.

The McKinsey survey from February 2017 confirmed team member engagement is critical for transformations. Comparing successful transformations to unsuccessful ones, we can see the effect of engaged frontline managers being at 82% versus 57% and engaged frontline employees being at 73% versus 46%. In my opinion, anytime “sense of belonging” is around 50%, our opportunity for having a culture of innovation is at risk. The creativity, ideas, challenging of the status quo and risk taking are simply not there. 

We have seen this in our firm, where in 2012 we did not have a consistently strong culture where team members across the firm had a strong sense of belonging. We made a commitment together in 2012 to make culture our number one priority. That journey has led us to this year, where over 90% of our team members express a strong sense of belonging.  Even better, like the lady sitting next to me in church, our team members have learned how to help others have a stronger sense of belonging.  

Today, we see team members constantly willing to provide ideas and challenge the status quo. We use the rally cry #beBetter. And although we are facing the challenge of being even more innovative this year, we know that we can meet the challenge with our strong sense of belonging. We continue to make mistakes and feel awkward at times, but we are getting stronger. 

It’s a journey for each of us. It’s really simple—yet hard. The obvious is that when we fail at innovation, fail at transformation, it’s usually is due to our team’s lack of engagement as a result of a weak culture. As I stated recently at the Southeastern Accounting Show in Atlanta, culture eats strategy for breakfast and innovation for lunch. It all starts with our firms and teams creating a strong sense of belonging within our culture. As Henry Cloud says, “Our culture will be what we intentionally create or what we allow.”  For innovation, for survival, we must be intentional to lead with culture before innovation.