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Why traditional thinking on innovation culture must evolve

Josh Gould's picture
Director of Innovation Duquesne Light

Director of Innovation @ Duquesne Light where I launched and now lead the company's Innovation Center. Prior to this, I launched an innovation group at Con Edison in New York, and prior to that I...

  • Member since 2021
  • 12 items added with 4,548 views
  • Apr 8, 2021

This item is part of the Innovation in the Power Industry - April 2021 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

Culture has become both a buzzword and something of a nirvana.  Everyone from management theorists to military generals to CEOs are asking culture to do everything from drive diversity and inclusion, create growth, improve safety, efficiency and, maybe most of all, generate innovation.


How we get culture wrong

While culture is lionized and supposedly “eats strategy for breakfast”, the emphasis seems to be on measuring it via employee surveys.  The thinking is you can’t improve what you don’t measure.  So ask your employees how you’re doing culturally, then construct a plan to address any issues.  Simple and easy, right?

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The problem is conventional wisdom only addresses half of the cultural challenge.  Culture is ultimately an output and outcome, a lagging indicator of many individual and management decisions, actions, and even words that all add up to that nebulous thing we call culture. 


What we need to measure

If the goal is to change and improve the culture, then we need to measure, incent, and improve the inputs and leading indicators that produce culture. That requires answering two seemingly obvious questions: “What culture do we want?” and “What are the behaviors that produce the culture that we want?”


How and what we measure at Duquesne Light

Here at Duquesne Light we believe culture and innovation are inseparable.  Therefore, we seek a culture where everyone is empowered and enabled to innovate.  We want a culture where innovation is a part of how we safely achieve our goals, serve our customers and community, and shape our future.

These are more than just platitudes or words.  We have developed metrics that indicate whether we are progressing toward these goals, and we update these measurements quarterly.  In particular, diversity, equity, and inclusion are core parts of how we achieve our mission (see “everyone is empowered and enabled”). So we measure diversity in many ways: from the diversity of our innovation project portfolio — whether that portfolio is touching our diverse organizational objectives; from affordability to sustainability; and the diversity of people, teams and departments leading our efforts.

Other key culture metrics include our innovation “footprint”: The number of total employee touchpoints with innovation in a given quarter, particularly the percentage of those touchpoints who are “new” (people whom innovation has not yet touched).  To ensure our culture is open to new ideas and people, we measure the touchpoints we have with external third parties, and the diversity of those partners. Finally, all of these metrics are linked intrinsically to our overall corporate efforts – like our supplier diversity program or our ever-increasing efforts to hire diverse talent – outside of innovation’s direct “mandate” but critical to achieving the innovative culture we seek.


Culture: You improve what you measure

In short, measuring your culture via employee surveys is necessary and important.  But it is only part of the story.  It is true that companies will “get what they measure” as it relates to culture.  However, that is exactly the reason why we need to identify and measure the inputs and leading indicators that generate the culture we seek.  The best historical innovations – like spears for ancient hunter-gathering cultures, the printing press for an increasingly literate population, or the telephone for a rapidly globalizing 19th century world – serve the emerging needs of a culture. 

Therefore, to drive a more innovative culture, first define the culture you seek, identify the inputs necessary to generate that culture, and then measure those inputs rigorously and regularly. At Duquesne Light, our culture is a work in progress but being strategic about what and how we measure gives us confidence we are moving in the right direction.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 8, 2021

If this topic is one that makes your ears perk up, stay tuned because an inside source tells me that Josh will be diving into this topic in more depth in next week's episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast!

Henry Craver's picture
Henry Craver on Apr 15, 2021

Seems to me that employee happiness is a prerequisite to a healthy company culture. If your workers aren't in positions where they feel both comfortable and stimulated, they'll be much less likely to buy in. Finding where their talents are best suited is the tricky part. Looking forward to that podcast!

Josh Gould's picture
Josh Gould on Apr 19, 2021

Organizational behavioral specialists refer to what you're describing Henry as "psychological safety."  If your employees feel engaged, listened to, and that their ideas will be welcomed and encouraged (whether or not they're actually implemented) they will feel "psychologically safe" and, according to research, be more likely to innovate.  Google puts a big emphasis on this.

So yes employees themselves are an often untapped source of innovation. A big part of constructive culture change is to tap into the full spectrum of their talents!

Paul Korzeniowski's picture
Paul Korzeniowski on Apr 27, 2021

These are more than just platitudes or words.  

Interesting point. Most companies try to create an innovative, inclusive, creative culture. But what do those words really mean? The challenge is finding ways to engage employees in a way where they believe that the terms are not just merely words but something tangible.  Identify ways to measure such items seems to be the first step in developing it an organization.  

Josh Gould's picture
Josh Gould on Apr 30, 2021

Amen to this Paul!  Words alone can actually harm culture if employees see they are not backed up by real, demonstrable action and measurements that indicate whether those actions are having the desired result.

Rudy Shankar's picture
Rudy Shankar on May 3, 2021

Excellent article, Josh. Need to define what culture the company wants and then work assiduously to measure those indicators. Can you share the impact of this on company innovation?

Josh Gould's picture
Thank Josh for the Post!
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