Innovation culture – what is it all about?
In my role as Innovation Coach and Consultant I get the chance to discuss various perspectives and elements of innovation in different organizations: innovation strategy, innovation methods and tools, roles and responsibilities, etc. These are ideally being designed and implemented as part of a broader, structured concept like the Innovation Management Framework. But is it enough to define a strategy, train people in creativity methods and implement tools like idea management?
My personal answer to this question is clearly no. It is not just about changing tools and processes for an innovative organization. We are looking at a much bigger challenge which mature organizations are facing here. It is about changing the traditional corporate culture and establishing an innovation culture which is the key element on the road to establish and accept innovation initiatives in a company.
How to define corporate culture? That’s not an easy one as corporate culture is usually not tangible or clearly documented. Hence there are tons of definitions available. My very personal understanding is the following: Corporate culture is the sum of written and unwritten shared values and rituals in
an organization (In case you have a better definition please feel free to share! 🙂 ).
This defines how individuals behave and act in the corporate environment, what is accepted as valuable, what is not, how to approach tasks, etc. Usually it evolves and grows along with the organization. This is why it is still very flexible and volatile in a start-up and can be very mature and settled in major corporations.
The second case is the tough nut we as innovation consultants usually have to crack trying to establish innovation.
Jeffrey Philipps introduced in his book “Relentless Innovation” the concept of BAU. “Business As Usual (BAU)” describes the typical mindset or cultural elements of major organizations that are sticking to patterns and processes which have been introduced a long time ago and which are cherished throughout all management levels. Philipps puts this in the context of big companies which are purely focusing on the constant race of top line vs bottom line. Cost optimization, business process re-engineering, lean production methods – those are all activities and concepts which are well known and accepted throughout these organizations.
Driving innovation management initiatives in this kind of environment can lead to failure very easily. Inviting middle management for a innovation or Design Thinking workshop, getting funding or recruiting a team for an innovation project – all this can end up in situations where you will be asked difficult questions or get crushing replies.
“How much revenue can we expect?”
“We have already done this in the past. It doesn’t work.”
“That is not the way we usually do it.”
(Sounds familiar? 🙂 )
A natural reaction: most people don’t want to leave their comfort zone and follow the values and rituals that have been proven and accepted in the past. Tapping into something new will lead them into uncertainty, eventually letting them not fulfill their annual goals or, even worse, bring up funny questions and comments from their peers. Gunter Dueck, former CIO at IBM Germany, explained this reaction comparing it with the activation of the immune system of an organization. If someone is trying to bring in a new ritual (e.g. Design Thinking) or value (e.g. Fail often and early) into an organization, it will start to fight and isolate it like an foreign body by an immune system.
Trying to solve this natural reaction is a long and painful process, like a traditional immune therapy. It is cumbersome, it can be painful and most probably frustrating. But once BAU is going to change into an acceptance of innovation and creativity then chances are high for establishing an open innovation culture within the organization.