It was exciting times. We were going through organisational change. The strategy looked promising. We were going to completely shift how we worked, innovate, be agile, take risks, and respond to the reduction in resources by working collaboratively. I was excited. I’d been in organisational limbo for over a year, seeking out new challenges in different areas while doing the routine day job and this change could present a big opportunity for me. Eventually I landed as Head of Innovation. A great title! I was going to be doing a job in which I had no idea what I was meant to do – nor, it seems, did anyone else in the organisation. Right up my street!

I quickly realised how hard the task ahead of me was when, after several “old school” workshops on the wider change programme, I was being continuously asked “What my key milestones were for the next 3 years” “What I was going to innovate and by when”, “please can you give us your KPIs” and “please just put some stickies up on the wall with something on them?”

Eventually I added a stickie saying “creating time travel” to the timeline for March 2018 and added “but I know it’s going to fail”. It didn’t go down well and I was seen as disruptive and could I please just fill in my project highlight report and risk register. I knew I didn’t know what I was doing in this new world of innovation (and was comfortable with that) but I quickly realised that we’d adopted these buzz words (empowerment, risk taking, agile, innovation etc.) without really knowing what we meant by them as an organisation and that most people were very uncomfortable with not having a detailed project plan of what the change activities were to be. The phrase “Culture Change” was also used a lot but mostly in a way that it was about changing others not ourselves (my suggestions that maybe we should start with ourselves by applying new ways of working to our change programme were seen as more evidence of my disruptiveness and reluctance to just follow the existing process). The irony was not lost on me.

Three years later, after ducking and diving to dodge the corporate beast that can grind change to a halt, we are innovating. And I have learnt a lot about what can make this work in an organisation.

The organisation wasn’t comfortable with risk but trusted me enough to know I wouldn’t do anything that would impact negatively on a noticeable scale. A modest budget meant I had to be creative but didn’t feel I was “wasting” money on trying things out.

Forming a support network with people in similar roles or with people who were key to working in new ways was invaluable. Resilience needs to be high as you will continuously battle against “you can’t do that” so having peers to support you is key. There’s something comforting about safety in numbers.

Keeping things slightly under the radar has allowed the organisation to innovate more – maintaining an awareness at a high level with key stakeholders is needed but underplaying new things you are testing gives you more space to play, disrupt, and refine. When you do have a success you can refer back to that report you sent out or that article you wrote saying “we told you we were going to try X …. Well here’s the outcome”. They will forget all the ones that didn’t work out.

Being comfortable with not knowing what you are doing or what the outcomes might be will make life much easier.

Don’t try and break down barriers. You’ll just get a flat head bashing your head against the wall. Work out what the stakeholders think about your work before you start, do they get it but disagree anyway? Are they clueless and badmouthing it (you)? Are they saying the right things but you don’t think will really help you when needed? Work with them upfront; get them to help you work out solutions (they may later take the glory too but does it matter?) FIND WAYS AROUND THE BARRIERS, bringing the ‘naysayers’ with you (all part of the much needed culture change)

Allow culture change to be organic and have its own life (it doesn’t belong in a PRINCE2 project). Sharing stories of new, exciting, fun and better ways of working encourages others to ask and join in. It’s not about telling people they need to change, it’s about providing the right environment to enable the changes you want to emerge with a little facilitation, a little signposting, a little teaching and a lot of invisible leadership (both upwards and downwards).

This might all seem really obvious. I’m sure most managers and leaders would recognise these points. But letting it happen, supporting it happening, encouraging it to happen without the need for project briefs, KPIs, reports, process is much harder. And letting it happen without you managing it may be even harder (especially as you may not be the right person to lead this type of activity). So if you want to encourage this in your organisation, give some space, time and maybe a small budget and empower those that might have the skills and qualities to do some of this without having a detailed remit or fully described output. Get them to try and develop the environments you need in your organisation to support innovation and new ways of working for everyone.

And please don’t bring in new buzzwords every year. Do you really understand what ‘transformative innovation’, ‘digital transformation’ or ‘xxxxxx’ really mean or do just sound like a good thing to document or put on a stickie?