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Neil Duffy 17th Feb 2022

Nurturing a culture of innovation

When we talk about the culture of a company, we tend to define it by very ‘human’ concepts – the HR policies, dress code and even the colours used in the company branding. The systems, software and processes we use all feel cold and mechanical, so the impact they have on culture is often overlooked.

More than half of employees are unhappy with their job because of the software they use. As many as 1 in 4 people have considered leaving their current role because of the software, with 1 in 8 having actually taken the plunge in the past, so this is not just idle frustration. The systems you use impact the people you hire and retain, and how they do their job – it is as much a cultural issue as the office dog!

How Systems Negatively Influence Culture

If a company’s systems are not flexible, when the business requires change at short notice, then manual workarounds need to be created. These are time-consuming, error prone and often don’t achieve the same results as an automated process would. However, since other stakeholders see the output, not the process, when the company is looking to invest money, why would they invest money to ‘fix’ something that is seen to work? They are far more likely to invest in things that deliver new functionality. These temporary workarounds then become de facto processes. As the manual processes build up over time, you spend more and more of your day fixing issues with them, and it starts to feel you are constantly on the edge of failing. Do this for long enough and ‘not failing’ feels like ‘success’.

Some people thrive in this sort of environment…they take pride in constantly being able to find quick solutions. This is not an inherently bad thing. Some of the best people I have worked with have been amazing firefighters. However, the best teams have a balance of skills and the problem comes when the people with a more proactive mindset get fed up of constantly working with flawed systems and leave, resulting in an imbalanced team. If funding ever becomes available to improve processes, a reactive culture is more likely to focus on fixing the specific issues they are having at that moment. So you miss the opportunity to bring in flexible solutions that would not only fix that problem, but also make it easier to solve any future problem – so you end up with an even more inflexible system, and the cycle begins again. I have seen this culture develop several times in multiple industries. It is more common in departments where limiting costs is the primary focus, such as operations or admin, as this pressure feeds the ‘non-failure = success’ mentality.

How Systems Positively Influence Culture

The best way to break this cycle is to introduce flexible systems, which can adapt to the needs of the business as they evolve. A flexible system is one which will allow you to change it with no development. This allows you to react to new business needs and therefore reduce the cost of changing the process. This means you have fewer manual processes, and your team spends less time fixing the same issues every month with more time to look at how to improve things.

People start to feel more in control of their software, more invested and can start experimenting with different ways of using it. The systems they work with are now something they own rather than something they have to work around. This sense of control is an important factor in retaining a better balance of skills within the team, and with a greater level of understanding of what is possible comes the generation of new ideas.

What is a Flexible System?

Most business software is aimed at entire industries or functions and has been designed to suit many customers throughout the sector, who are each able to configure it to their specific business needs. This may mean changing what data can be entered in the front end or changing what happens to this data via a rules engine. For example, a HR system may have configurable settings for shift vs. 9-5 workers. Finance systems will have different tax calculations depending on the specific territory a cost centre is based. Inflexible systems would only be able to cope with one employee type or tax jurisdiction. It may also be possible to create reports, dashboards and tools based on the data in the system. This lets you identify issues or trends that need to be resolved. This approach can be very powerful, but usually requires someone to manually make changes based on the findings, so can still be time-consuming when compared to a fully integrated solution and most systems don’t allow their data to be accessed directly.

Limitations of Flexibility

No system is endlessly configurable so there will be times when you need specific functionality that is just not available. When this happens, you either need to submit a change request (and wait a long time) or change supplier (and suffer all the migration implications of the change). If you are changing because you’ve had a brilliant idea to do something different, you also risk sharing your idea with your competitors. If you have bespoke software, you may retain the competitive advantage of your idea, but bear the full cost of the development, which has traditionally been very high.

Maximising Flexibility with Low-Code

The more direct the relationship between end user and the development process is, the stronger their sense of control over the systems is. This is why low-code platforms, such as Mendix, help to nurture an innovative culture. The visual nature of low-code makes it easier for business users to work closer with developers, helping them feel more part of the development process. They can see the business logic be translated into microflows and the data available in the domain models. This means the same people who have the deepest understanding of the business need are also exposed to the inner workings of the software, helping them to bridge the gap between technology and processes. The rise of Citizen Developers takes this even further by enabling business users to directly create their own solutions.

Holistic Approach

Implementing flexible systems is not a silver bullet. To create an innovative culture, you also need to hire the right mix of people. I’ve mostly talked about the problems with being too reactive, but too much focus on innovation can cause you to become too academic and lose sight of the core objective. How you balance these two factors depends on the nature of the company, the maturity of the processes and the individuals involved.

This whole concept also needs to be underpinned by supportive leadership. The situations where I have seen the best and most innovation happen is when the leadership create an environment where people feel comfortable discussing different ideas and experimenting, while being decisive to move in a chosen direction. Put the right people, with the right tools, in the right environment and good things will happen!

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