“Culture is something we can’t touch but we can feel”
All around us we have culture. Where we live, how we see ourselves against others, who we identify with and how we react when ‘our’ culture gets threatened. We become comfortable, sometimes complacent and treat ‘our’ culture as something that is just there, just around us, wrapping us up in a warm blanket.
Every now and again we get confronted. It can be within the community we live, it can be within our organizations. Innovation is one of those confronting points that challenge our accepted culture.
Organizational culture forms an integral part of our general functioning. A strong culture tends to indicate a set of shared values that move the ‘whole’ along we then get that feeling we are on the same track. The more we integrate, the more we coordinate, the more we socialize we eventually create the accepted boundaries, that feeling of growing identity among ourselves that seems to signal a similar commitment to the organization.
The sudden demand for innovation needs managing thoughtfully
Then along comes this demand for more innovation, think differently, speed up, we need to outsource, to open up and suddenly our world gets challenged. We become defensive. Unless this is handled carefully and thoughtfully we lose our shared meaning, the social glue becomes less binding and actually the very opposite happens, culture begins to significantly reduce our efficiency within our organization. We start freezing, the very opposite of what innovation is asking of us.
Rational tools and processes only go part of the way in unfreezing this. We need to find more ‘expressive ways’ to show why, what and how innovation needs to be brought in and allowed to alter and shape our existing culture and practices.
The critical enablers
Of course we need to often go back to the drawing board, when we are shaping a new culture based on innovation. We need to craft a new mission and vision; we need to explain the realities of the external environment and why innovation is important, we need to offer the means to meet our new aims of becoming more innovative. Then, with a deeper breath we need to fashion a new image of the organization, offer new processes, structures and tools to enable and work with innovation. Most importantly we need to consider employee needs and their objectives and identification with why we want innovation to take hold, we need to change around the interpersonal relationships through teams, through networking, through exploring outside the present environment and lastly we need lots of leadership.
It is often not appreciated how much an existing culture can hinder innovation, it can stop creativity. The very behaviours you previously valued for efficiency and effectiveness now become the ones you want to change as they have suddenly become the roadblocks, and so these must become the critical focal point to address.
One great description of successful innovation I like was from a research paper by Judge, back in 1997, that suggests “innovation as chaos within guidelines”.
Top management prescribes a set of goals but simply allow its personnel greater freedom within the context of these goals, perhaps it permits more time to explore and experiment and works on trying to stay out of the way on how it is pursued. I like that, some are actually encouraging that already as part of their accepted culture. I’d add top management needs to clarify priorities, where it places the emphasis on new values that might shift, for example, into quality and growth impact potential rather than effectiveness and delivering quantity.
Equally there is a real need to explain any new attributes like agility, flexibility, freedom and cooperative teamwork. This goes well beyond just announcing changes through offering flatter structures, greater autonomy and work team environments, but explaining clearly what it gives both the organization and the individual affected. People need to hear and understand the reasons and rationale for why it sometimes needs radically altering the existing culture, maybe because of the profound changes in the market environment that this is required. Treat people as adults and they might behave more rational and ‘move’ to change because it is somewhere they would prefer to be.
Setting sail is different from being on a long journey
Many organizations certainly attempt to set this momentum in place but do they go far enough? Does the more establish culture strike back in unseen ways? Organizations have ‘host’ systems that release the ‘antibodies’ to counter the new attempts to alter it. It simply resists and as I said earlier, might shut down in many ways.
Managing culture that promotes innovation is complex; it is often left to chance, left to experiment, far too ad hoc in design and just exploring. We need to commit to a deeper approach, if we want to really change our culture to innovate. Unless the values, norms and beliefs are not clearly thought through and consistently reinforced initiatives to change simply die. The question for management wanting innovation is that they need to work through the determinants that encourage innovation and then set about communicating these and making them happen but this takes a lot of time and dedicated commitment. Maybe we need an Innovation Culture Officer, certainly for a given time perhaps.
Where I think we need to change the game is thinking through three dimensions for shifting our thinking about culture and place the emphasis on building the needed competences of an organization in this century. These come more from an Eastern view of the world to connect them but one has been discussed throughout the centuries.
Culture needs to think through three perspectives
The Outer Game: As open innovation gains more momentum for seeking value creation we are seeking more and more through external networks and relationships. This is changing and sometimes challenging culture within organizations. We need to figure out the outer game from the cultural perspective to enable innovation
The Inner Game: The more recognized place, within organizations. The interpersonal relationships are the place to look and build from. We need far more synergies, more dialogues beyond our normal ones. How do we place a growing emphasis on these?
The Secret Game: We are taught much in moral behaviours, about human nature that are partly inherent in our personal values. Today, in organizations we are sometimes confronted because these are often in conflict with different understandings of performance, more for ourselves as individuals, less for the community yet we still chose to live in but with growing reluctance. We are often keeping our true emotions hidden.
Many of our core values are not as ‘grounded’ as they use to be, we have allowed them to fray at the edges. Those values, norms and beliefs do need to be spelled out within organizations really well and followed through in the behaviour that mirrors them. Otherwise we do have secret games and in the long-term collective performance suffers. We do need to reduce the secret games that go on quietly within organizations.
Leadership is vital to managing cultural change.
Leaders who want innovation need to offer a positive, supportive environment where the attitudes, perspectives and beliefs are well articulated and communicated. Organization culture is a barrier or the enabler to innovation. Asking people to change is not a one-off event, it is a constant, daily ‘grind’ but if you provide the right environment and enablers that innovation requires you can get a positive reaction and you then raise the cultural expectations that eventually makes the change needed for creating a culture for innovation.
Culture reflects the sum total of a way of life. It provides the patterns, the values, the traits and behaviours shared within an organization that can make or break innovation. These cannot be touched but they can be felt. Culture has a profound influence on innovation’s success, it can’t be left to chance, it needs carefully designing and nourishing and this can only come from the top allowing it to grow in well thought-through and designed ways.