Corporate Values and Mission Statements Are Stifling Innovation

5 September, 2017 / Articles
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In a recent opinion piece for The New York Times “Let’s Get Excited about Maintenance,” Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel made a solid point: “When Americans talk about technology, they often use ‘innovation’ as a shorthand. But ‘innovation’ refers only to the very early phases of technological development and use. It also tends to narrow the scope of technology to digital gadgets of recent vintage: iPhones, social media apps and so on. A more expansive conception of technology would take into account the diverse array of tools, including subways and trains, that we humans use to help us reach our goals.”

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I would go one step further: A more expansive conception of innovation should take into account the tools, values, and approaches leaders use in the workplace to reclaim growth. An innovation mentality requires leaders to stop focusing on the new and begin to reinvent to evolve those opportunities that are right in front of you. As I discussed in a recent article, that requires inclusive leadership that challenges the status quo in the workplace.

And maybe the best place for any company to start challenging that status quo is with their corporate value and mission statements.

I’ve been in and out of a lot of businesses and companies, and I read the words that make up these statements. I don’t have to look far to find them. Most organizations have them written or posted on the walls. Wonderful statements about respecting employees and customers, striving to be the best in the marketplace, no idea being too small or crazy to make a difference . . . They mirror the six strategies of what I call the innovation mentality.

But most of the time these words are not perpetuating innovation. They are perpetuating a lie: Brilliantly crafted, field and focus group tested, genuine attempts to force into reality exactly the kind of values and inclusivity that is not happening in the workplace. Words have a lot of power but not that much power. Organizations cannot say all these great things to their people and then fail to follow through on them. That just makes senior leaders stick to the status quo – even if it violates the words on the wall. Better to play it safe even if it perpetuates a lie. And when employees walk into work and see their senior leaders come up with another excuse for not following the stated corporate values – or respecting their people when they do? Why should they do it? No one is practicing them.

The problem starts with how these values are created in the first place: Simply substituting more inclusive and evolved words every few years and never challenging anyone to do the evolved thinking needed to live those values.

Here is my challenge to you. Ask and answer the following questions:

  • When was the last time your corporate values were challenged?
  • Have you discussed, listened to, and thought about what your corporate values mean to individuals in the workplace and marketplace, and how they will live them?

If your answers are anything like “I can’t remember” and “probably not” then your corporate values are just words without shared beliefs. To bring these values to life and evolve them into shared beliefs, you must get past the fear of challenging the status quo and all the ego, envy, and politicking to see the opportunity that the values represent for the business and the situation at hand. Without that, they will only see what you tell them to without any circular vision.

And if you think that isn’t possible, you need to see the experiment Dr. Christopher Chabris and Dr. Daniel Simons did on selective attention that inspired their book The Invisible Gorilla. “Imagine you are asked to watch a short video in which six people—three in white shirts and three in black shirts — pass basketballs around,” the authors say. “While you watch, you must keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts. At some point, a gorilla strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera and thumps its chest, and then leaves, spending nine seconds on screen. Would you see the gorilla? Almost everyone answers ‘yes, of course, I would.’ How could something so obvious go completely unnoticed? But when we did this experiment at Harvard University . . . we found that half the people who watched the video and counted the passes missed the gorilla. It was as though the gorilla was invisible.”

To have people evolve, see opportunity, and truly take ownership of these values to reclaim growth, you must break free of “gorilla psychology” and the hypocrisy in the workplace being perpetuated by the words on the walls. Your people want to live their goals and values through their work so you must have the goals and values of your company aligned with theirs. Traditional corporate values don’t do this. They are one-way streets.

Shared beliefs are two-way streets that place a premium on commitment, not just compliance — and allow innovation in all aspects of your business to flow from the workplace.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

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