Stop blaming culture – it’s you!

Stop blaming culture – it’s you!

Quite often, when management discuss the need for innovation, the conversation ends with people exclaiming “We just have the wrong culture” or “We’ve got to change our culture to embrace innovation”.

This is because culture is commonly misconceived as one of the less controllable aspects of managing an organisation.

In other cases, the importance of and commitment to innovation is declared by management. This too can actually often the worst thing to do, because peoples anticipation turns into disillusion and mistrust if nothing actually comes from such declarations.

To what extent company culture actually exists is certainly debatable, especially when the cultural differences between different parts of an organisation are substantial. In fact, it could be argued that any organisation that consists of more than one person is an organisation with different sets of values, attitudes leading to a variety of behaviours.

So what does Culture actually mean? There are numerous different definitions of culture, from bacteria culture to political and historical definitions of culture, but when management talk about changing culture, they are referring to organisational culture.

Organisational culture should not be mixed up with formalised company values. We see innovation, innovative, and creative, being used as one of the organisation’s core values, when in fact it’s more an expression of wishful thinking and has no, or very little, impact on organisational culture.

Changing organisational culture to a more innovative culture is about changing collective organisational behaviour, so that the average behaviour pattern of individuals, supports rather than hinders innovation. The question is – how do we go from merely complaining about culture to actually changing it?

Expecting people to change their behaviour without any preceding organisational change is unrealistic.  What we decide to measure influences behaviour. If people are guided and measured by optimising their current business and delivering the next quarterly report, that’s where they will focus and develop. In other words, if we reward people for optimising today’s business logic, we will never get tomorrow’s business solutions.

Capability effects Culture

But it isn’t only about measuring and rewarding. The vast majority of today’s employees lack real education on how to run and manage innovation. Managers attend MBA programs – Managing Business Administration – where training and knowledge about innovation is badly lacking. Without knowledge of how to create innovation systems and without the competence to manage innovation projects, we simply won’t build an effective and reproducible innovation system.

Most organisations take it for granted that their employees need specialised skills to deal with mission critical topics such as finance, IT, human resources, quality, etc. But when it comes to innovation there are almost no experts, no defined roles, and no formalised measurement. Also, far too many organisations lack the management and organisational structures to support different types of innovation with defined processes.

Not surprisingly, we clearly see that by raising innovation capabilities, knowledge and competence, as well as creating supportive organisational structures, innovation culture in organisations is positively effected and begins to flourish.

Direction effects Culture

A culture is also highly dependent on the goals and challenges it’s facing. If goals are unclear it makes sense that peoples’ behaviour won’t be aligned towards the common goal. Booz & Co’s Global Innovation 1000 (2011) states that ”In fact, companies with both highly aligned cultures and highly aligned innovation strategies have 30% higher enterprise value growth and 17% higher profit growth than companies with low degrees of alignment”.

Innovation isn’t easy but it becomes more difficult if you don’t direct it towards a tangible goal. If people see a goal to strive towards, a goal that inspires and motivates, there will be a higher impact on the culture of innovation. Organisations that can communicate, measure and follow-up on a clear strategy that directs innovation efforts, have a much better chance of forming a successful culture of innovation.

Action effects Culture

If culture is comprised of values and attitudes, and values and attitudes direct behaviour, then culture influences behaviour. Behaviour in this context boils down to the actions we take when given a choice between action A or B. But if culture influences behaviour, the opposite is true too – behaviour influences culture. We all know that children learn by watching what we do, and less by what we tell them to do, especially when there is a contradiction between what we say and what we do. The same applies to everybody. It’s by doing innovation, by showing the willingness to change and learn, by creating results, that we will motivate people to innovate.

Organisations that plan, structure and educate for innovation, yet still don’t gear into action, have difficulties forming a culture of innovation. The impact that a successful national team or a individual sportsman can be immense. Numbers of youngsters wanting to be involved rockets, investments are made in infrastructure (tennis courts, ski slopes…), knowledge about the sport dramatically increases, etc. A positive spiral begins and consequently a culture is formed.

This positive spiral is an important element in any cultural change, but especially important with innovation, because innovation is wrongly seen as something mystical, uncontrollable and risky. Indeed, because innovation is about inventing the yet unknown, it is more difficult to enforce top-down. Therefore, innovation culture needs to be boosted by real action which encourages a positive spiral.

Shaping an innovation culture

All our experience shows that innovation culture won’t work if it is simply be ordered by management. Hoping it would happen by merely stating that innovation is part of an organisation’s core values doesn’t  either. In order to actively form a culture of innovation, our advice is to focus on three themes that constitute the foundation for working professionally with innovation.

You need to decide upon and then communicate a clear direction. A plan that describes what to do, and what not to do. In other words innovation needs clear boundaries that are fully understood. Our investment in innovation should be directed, focused and orchestrated towards the output that we want from innovation.

The second focus area is capabilities. You need to focus on creating organisational and individual capabilities that enable systematic and effective innovation processes.

Raising capabilities is about empowering people with knowledge and know-how, creating different roles and “jobs to be done”, and giving the organisation a common innovation language. It is about using the best tools in the right place, creating organisational structures, and starting to measure and follow-up on innovation.

Every organisation has its own unique challenges and needs. There’s no silver bullet. You need to identify your specific needs and pace. Increase your innovation capabilities step by step, follow your plan while experimenting and evaluating as you go along. Increasing capabilities gives a real chance for innovation culture to follow.

The third focus area is action. You need to walk the walk. Innovation happens like anything else, by actually doing. By making mistakes and rectifying them, by trying something and adjusting accordingly. If you are going to change attitudes and behaviour you need to prove that it can be done and that you support allowing and taking risks (which does not mean any stupid risk). You need to, after a while, show evidence that you are creating value. You want people to think and feel that they really want to be part of the next innovation project. That innovation is a positive experience to be embraced.

To have innovation impact on organisational culture, you need to encourage behavioural change. Real behavioural change happens when people have clear directions, useful boundaries and capability, as well as trust and support to carry the changes through. If this also enforced by action we can even change a innovation hostile culture, into a culture that encourages innovative behaviour.


To gain further insights into how to build and strengthen your innovation process, get in touch to see how we can help you. We’ve been pioneering the professionalisation of innovation since 2000 to become one of the worlds leading innovation consultancies. Amplify has developed and implemented unique innovation services that deliver immediate and long-term sustainable value, together with clients such as BMW, Siemens, Ericsson and AstraZeneca. Amplify also trains hundreds of new innovation managers on an annual basis, through their own programs and together with major international executive schools.

Professionalising innovation with Amplify means proactively embracing today and tomorrow.

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