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Developing a Relationship-Centric, Innovative Culture

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Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: Business and Management

Date: March 2012

By David Nour

This is the first in the InfoComm Innovation Executive Briefings series by David Nour, author of Relationship Economics and Return on Impact. Nour, who addressed the 2011 InfoComm 100, will also be sharing his expertise in a series of InfoComm Webinars. For this article, he spoke with Craig Janssen LEED AP and Managing Director at Acoustic Dimensions, about innovative cultures. To view the webinar on this topic, register online.

Innovation is about the pathway to an end result. The end result is about solving problems and solving problems is inevitably about the client. At Acoustic Dimensions, innovation is not the goal. Rather, the goal is to provide a great project solution that solves a problem. Often, in isolating a problem or issue, it may be that the best solution is tried and tested. But other times, the solution is yet to be created. In the service of achieving a great solution that meets a need, something fresh and new is created —  something innovative. The goal should never be innovation for innovation’s sake. In other words, teams are not tasked to create something new just because it needs to be new. Innovation must serve a goal.

Identifying the real issue or problem that needs solving is a significant exercise for the consulting firm. In some cases, the solution is obvious, a pure engineering task. Other times it is not. Therefore Craig is fairly specific in pointing out that the company provides project solutions, not necessarily audiovisual solutions. The project solution may include an audiovisual or auditorium design pathway, but on occasion it might simply be to tell the client they don’t need their services at, or that they would be better off working with someone else. That response inevitably builds loyalty, but the ultimate purpose is to solve the client’s goal.

Negotiation techniques drive Acoustic Dimension’s approach to identifying client goals. In the Harvard Negotiation Project, one of the techniques taught is to ferret out the client’s best interest and discover what is genuinely most important to the client. Otherwise, there is a tendency to make assumptions that are biased —  perhaps that a new sound system is what a client needs when in fact it is not important to them at all. Client priorities need to be discovered, acknowledged and put into context.

Innovative Leadership and Culture

All innovative cultures start with innovative leadership. An important point to clarify is that leadership is not management, and leaders who don’t understand that are rarely innovative. Innovative leaders lead from the front, they don’t push from behind; they are pullers, not pushers. They also understand that the new norm has transitioned from command-and-control to connect-and-collaborate. Innovative organizations are not hierarchal; they are very flat, and they set trajectories, not goals. Trajectory leads people toward ongoing innovation, whereas goals have an end — a stopping point. Innovative leaders are risk-takers, intensely curious. They give away credit and provide opportunity. This is how they create cultures of innovation.

Innovative organizations believe culture determines the end result.

The highly innovative organization believes that culture is as important as the product; that culture dictates and results in a product. In the west, product is an acceptable, if not common, end result. However, the outcome in those two settings is very different.

Innovative organizations are clear about what they commit to.

Teams that are effective in defining their culture are very clear about what they commit to. At Acoustic Dimensions, “It’s not about us,” Janssen insists. ”We serve our clients.” On the face of it, that commitment seems self-evident. But in reality, it is a fairly profound position to remove self (ego) from the picture. That type of culture creates the possibility for failure, exploration and innovation.

Subsequent commitments include trust, team, constant improvement, effective process, quality, and the belief that everything affects everything else. Cultures that have a strong sense of commitment to specific ideas contribute to environments that are highly innovative. Conversely, where there is no innovation, cultures are found to be hierarchal, untrustworthy, self-involved, goal-oriented, lacking trajectory and path, and focused on a specific end result.

Innovative organizations attract, hire and retain the right people.

Acoustic Dimensions considers five criteria for selecting people:  natural gifts, calling (are they passionate about something or are they just doing it?), temperament (do they have the right mix?), education, and experience — in that order. They also group people in the office by temperament and, to some degree, by skill set. Organizations that don’t pursue innovation tend to look for experience and education first and foremost. It’s the resume approach. At Acoustic Dimensions, they know they can get experience; they know that gifting is special and temperament rarely changes.  As Managing Director, Craig is the final decision-maker for hiring decisions, but the team is very involved in interviewing people and has a voice in those decisions. Their employees come from a variety of sectors, and generally come in because they know someone at the company. 

Innovative organizations create a culture of engagement and trust.

About 45% of the team members have been with Acoustic Dimensions for 10 of its 20-year existence. Retention is strong, but not because of money, as salaries didn’t increase in the recession. Craig attributes low turnover to a layered approach that creates a high-trust environment, which begins with treating people with respect. Employees are given great freedom: There is no time clock, and they can come in when they please — early or late, they are not questioned. If guys are playing video games in the middle of the day, they play video games, without fear that someone is looking over their shoulder. They are trusted implicitly. They are given the latest and best toys and tools; the offices are spectacular, with fantastic equipment. As engineers, they appreciate that. The flat structure of the company is such that there are no job descriptions. Hours are not tracked and therefore billings are not attributed to one individual, eliminating that sense of competitiveness that pits employee against employee.

Clients are billed for the work they want done, not for how many hours it took to do it. And 90% to 95% of work is fixed-fee. Craig believes tracking hours is a fairly fruitless exercise in the industry; that it stifles innovation in the creative environment. Tracking hours as a measure of productivity and job description communicates to people that they can’t be something else; that they can’t be innovative or creative during their day. In his experience, some people are wildly productive and do incredible things in two hours, then spend six hours creating efficiency tools that will save time for someone else in the company. If only the first two hours are billable and a productive measure of efficiency, such people won’t spend the extra six hours a day coming up with productivity tools that impact the company as a whole.

Another attribute of the culture at Acoustic Dimensions is that team members are highly, if not unusually, bonded together. If someone is in trouble and having to work late, someone else will work late to help. They will miss personal engagements, or work through the weekend. Craig has seen people cross both disciplines and project lines to help their colleagues in the office.

Freedom, in the context of Acoustic Dimensions, appears to unshackle employees from industry norms. They have created a culture of engagement where innovation is possible; where people can think differently and be self-directed and creative.

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