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How Is Your Climate for Innovation?

By Charles W. Prather, Ph.D.

Think back over your career to the work situation that provided the most satisfying working environment for you (hopefully it is your current job).  Now, contrast that one to the opposite - the one that provided the least satisfying working environment.  You are probably instantly able to see that your personal enthusiasm and the level of your innovativeness paralleled the work environment. What dimensions of the environment do you think were most important?  If you wanted to improve the environment for innovation, what specifically would you do?  Leaders struggle with these questions.

In our work with organizations, we find that the climate for innovation is crucial, poorly understood,  and all but ignored when thoughts turn to improving the level of innovation.  When leaders wish to improve the climate, many times they will just shotgun it - doing something that is poorly thought out, or doing something that makes the situation worse.  There is a better way - first understand the system and get the data, then decide what to do.

Based on the pioneering work of Goran Ekvall in Sweden some 20 years ago, it is now possible to quantify the climate for innovation.  Ekvall's work has been further refined and validated by Scott Isaksen and others at the Center for Creative studies at SUNY-Buffalo, who have defined nine dimensions of the climate for innovation.  These nine dimensions are:

1. Challenge (How challenged, how emotionally involved, and how committed am I to the work?)

2. Freedom (How free am I to decide how to do my job?)

3. Idea Time (Do we have time to think things through before having to act?)

4. Idea Support (Do we have a few resources to give new ideas a try?)

5. Trust & Openness (Do people feel safe in speaking their minds and openly offering different points of view?)

6. Playfulness and Humor (How relaxed is our workplace - is it OK to have fun?)

7. Conflicts (To what degree do people engage in interpersonal conflict or "warfare?")

8. Debates (To what degree do people engage in lively debates about the issues)

9. Risk-Taking (Is it OK to fail when trying new things?)

Ekvall was able to validate the climate for innovation as a determinant of business success in his original work in Sweden, and that validation is now in progress in the United States.  Intuitively you already know the outcome - of course there will be a correlation between the climate for innovation and business success! 

We find we can group the nine dimensions into three areas: (1) Resources,  (2) Personal Motivation, and (3) Exploration.  Considering the nine dimensions organized in this way, we have:


1. Idea Time

2. Idea Support

3. Challenge and Involvement



1. Trust and Openness

2. Playfulness and Humor

3. Absence of Interpersonal Conflicts




2. Debates About the Issues

3. Freedom


In our work with organizations brave enough to measure their climate for innovation, we have found striking similarities.  The dimensions in greatest need for improvement were
(1) Risk-Taking
(2) Idea Time
(3) Idea Support, and
 (4) Trust and Openness. 
Much less need for improvement was needed in Debates, Absence of interpersonal Conflicts, and Playfulness & Humor.  Challenge and Involvement, and Freedom were in good shape.  You can see that the dimensions in greatest need for improvement happen to lie in each of the three arenas listed above.

Most R&D organizations are experiencing severely restricted budgets and fewer people, yet the work remains.  No surprise that the dimension of Challenge and Involvement is doing just fine, and that the dimensions of Idea Time and Idea Support are in urgent need of repair.  In the face of personnel cutbacks, it is no surprise that the dimensions of Trust & Openness and Risk-Taking are deficient.   People are reluctant to take risks when downsizing is looking for the next group to "decruit."

You might be saying to yourself, "That's fine, but we don't have the money or time to worry about environment."  The reality is that you cannot afford NOT to invest in improving the environment.  Karl  Mettke of the USDA Forest Service, Eastern Region, has documented an impressive 18% improvement in productivity as a direct result of improving the environment for Innovation.  Most of the investment will be in the "soft stuff" rather than money and other "hard" resources.

Lets look at the dimensions of the Climate for Innovation requiring "hard stuff" and those requiring "soft stuff".  Many technically trained people tend to think that the only important stuff is the "hard" stuff, and they tend to dismiss the "soft stuff" as unimportant, unnecessary, and at best, elusive.  In this author's experience as an R&D professional, R&D leader, and now as organizational consultant, it is the "hard stuff" that is easy, and the "soft stuff' that is hard.  Although both are needed, we are finding that much more attention needs to be paid to the "soft stuff" once a minimal level of  "hard" resources are available.  Looking at the table below, notice how many more items require attention to the "soft stuff" which usually require no appreciable resources except human awareness and thoughtfulness. 

Climate DimensionThe "Hard Stuff" Needed to ImproveThe "Soft Stuff" Needed to ImproveChallenge and Involvement-Involve the people in defining the challenge.Idea TimeAllocate time to think before acting.Use a process to get the best ideas from everyone. Ask what ideas were considered but rejected in favor of the one proposed.Idea SupportResources ($) to give new ideas a try.Encouragement to try new ideas and warmly receive them when they are offered.Playfulness & Humor-Create the expectation that one can have fun at work.Trust & Openness-Lead by example: admit when things go wrong and engage in dialogue about how to improve.Debates-If everyone agrees, then you disagree, just to stimulate debate.Absence of Interpersonal Conflicts-Insist that people get along.  Some reassignments may be necessary. Risk-Taking-Cultivate an expectation for "mistakes."  This is allied with the dimension of Trust & Openness.


Rate Your Environment

Each of the following questions seeks to assess one of the nine dimensions of the environment.  Although the full questionnaire is far more complete and accurate, thinking about these questions could be instructive.  As you read each question, consider how your organization might answer them.  If you have a formal leadership position, ask your people to answer them anonymously.


Assesment Questions (1 indicates Little====> 5 indicates A Lot)

1. To what degree are people here deeply committed to their jobs?1  -  2  -  3  -  4  -  5

2. To what degree are people able to decide how to do their jobs?1  -  2  -  3  -  4  -  5

3. To what degree do we take the time to think of alternate ways to accomplish a difficult task before having to take action?1  -  2  -  3  -  4  -  5

4. To what degree are new ideas given a warm reception, and to what degree are resources available to give new ideas a try?1  -  2  -  3  -  4  -  5

5. To what degree is there emotional tension here?1  -  2  -  3  -  4  -  5

6. To what degree is there lively debate on the issues?1  -  2  -  3  -  4  -  5

7. To what degree do we hear good-natured joking, and to what degree is the work atmosphere relaxed?1  -  2  -  3  -  4  -  5

8. To what degree are people informal and open with one another?1  -  2  -  3  -  4  -  5

9. To what degree do people feel free to take action when the outcome might not meet expectations?1  -  2  -  3  -  4  -  5


In our work with clients we consistently find that the view of the environment is directly related to the organizational level of the rater.  That is, the higher up the organization, the better the environment appears to be.  It is a little like flying over New York City at 30,000 ft.  From that height it looks just fine, but at street level you begin to notice the problems, and it is at the street level that work gets done.  As you think about how to improve your climate for innovation, be sure improve the foundation, beginning at the street level.


Charles W. Prather is President of CW Prather Associates, Inc. He can be reached at (302) 234-0712. Further information about the climate for innovation and fostering innovation in organizations can be found in Blueprints for Innovation by Charles W. Prather and Lisa K. Gundry, published by The American Management Association as part of the American Management Briefing Series, 1995.


This article appeared in the May 1996 issue of R&D Innovator magazine.   Dr. Winston Brill is the editor of R&D Innovator; he can be reached at 608-231-6766.

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©Copyright 1999 Daniel Aronson. Documents (c) their authors.  all rights reserved.

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