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Does Your Company Have the Right Culture to Innovate?

Article-Does Your Company Have the Right Culture to Innovate?

A company's culture is paramount to its success at innovation. What are those unwritten rules that define a company and how can they be recreated to encourage innovation?

A company's culture is paramount to its success at innovation. What are those unwritten rules that define a company and how can they be recreated to encourage innovation?

Ted Harro


Maybe you scratch your heads sometimes, wondering why the flow of new ideas in your company is underwhelming. In my work with senior leadership teams on strategy and the future of their organizations, this topic often comes up, often with a tinge of exasperation.

If new ideas are too few and no one is sticking their necks out, often it's the culture that’s killing innovation. No matter how much you talk about innovation, if the culture is against it, innovation is dead in the water. Management legend Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Even if that strategy is an innovation strategy. Maybe especially if that strategy is an innovation strategy.

Let’s start by defining a squishy word: culture. Culture is simply shorthand for the unwritten rules we live by, the way we should think, feel and act. Culture answers questions like:

  • Who fits in around here? Perhaps more than most pursuits, innovation is fundamentally a talent game. Try as you might, you’re probably not going to turn a group of grinders into innovation powerhouses. If you want innovation, your culture needs to throw out the welcome mat for people who naturally gravitate toward trying new things.
  • Who will be promoted and rewarded? Many innovators realize that they’re not going to be CEO. These people are more often motivated by contribution and creation instead of by power. They do want to be promoted and recognized, but that doesn’t always have to be a change in job grade or income, though innovators like a nice raise as much as the next person. What they desire is to be valued in ways meaningful to them.
  • What companies and organizations do we want to do business with? Innovators want to associate with other interesting people and companies. They get a buzz by being seen as part of the hot creative scene in their field. Create opportunities for that and they’ll be plugged in.
Ted Harro, founder & president, Noonday Ventures

Notice that I define culture as “unwritten rules.” That’s because companies are notorious for being blind to their own cultures. Sometimes they even say and write things about their cultures that are patently false. Read most annual reports for instances of such behavior.

So if you’re curious about the real culture of your organization, check out these culture markers:

  • Heroes, goats, and heretics — Listen carefully. Who does your organization talk about as the heroes, goats, and heretics? You’ll find heroes on stage at company meetings. You’ll see them getting special access to resources and people in power. Though less obvious, goats are those who get blamed when things go wrong. Heretics are those who looked good on paper but didn’t fit once they joined the company.
  • Legends and Mottos — While what’s on your walls is interesting, if you really want to smoke out a culture, listen to the stories that are repeated from the past. Sit down and ask someone who has been at the company for a while to tell you about what it was like in a prior era. Listen for legends. Listen for catch-phrases and mottos that sum up that time. Pay attention to the legends and mottos that have stuck around.
  • Dirty words — Almost every company has dirty words, and not (just) the ones you learned in the schoolyard. I’m talking about the traits or actions that everyone knows you should avoid in this culture.
  • Icons, pictures, metaphors, and memes  While I don’t totally buy what’s on your walls, I do look at visual cues, office art, and even office design as an indicator of culture. When I work with startups, they’re usually big mosh pits of hipster energy. There are rarely offices or walls. It’s noisy. While sometimes driven by necessity and the fact that they’re bursting at the seams, the environment says something about what they believe creates the right outcomes for them  proximity, energy, informality, and cross-pollination.

Over time, leaders turn these markers into processes and procedures to codify them and make them stick. Pretty soon, you barely notice they’re there. They’re the unquestioned laws of the land. You think and act and feel in a certain way that conforms to the culture. It’s just normal.

Anyone who wants to solve big problems through innovation would best pay attention to those pesky unwritten rules. By identifying common innovation buzzkills and replacing them with innovation buzz-builds, you can recreate the unwritten rules of your organization. That might be one of the most important innovation plays you can make.

Ted Harro is founder and president of Noonday Ventures, a strategy facilitation and leadership development firm. He will present a keynote about Avoiding10 Innovation Buzzkills at a conference in Minneapolis hosted by UBM and LifeScience Alley on Nov. 5. 

[Image Credit: user  choness]

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