Is your Culture Kryptonite for Innovators?

by Jeffrey Phillips

Is your Culture Kryptonite for Innovators?I’ve made the argument previously that corporate culture is one of the most significant barriers to innovation.  Yet corporate culture is ephemeral, hard to grasp and change.  Like Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.  Why is it that culture is so powerful yet so hard to define and manage?  If culture lacks definition and isn’t transparent, why is it such a major obstacle to innovation?  Finally, if culture is powerful, what does your culture do to your innovators?

First, we ought to debate whether or not “corporate culture” exists.  Certainly we can’t see it, can’t “cage” it.  Corporate culture is really the belief system a company has about itself and how it operates.  It can’t be seen, and in most cases can’t be documented or defined.  While many executives would like to believe that they influence and control the culture, they are usually wrong.  Culture is far more powerful than an executive who will take on a role for just a few years.  The culture, like a rubber band, will simply snap back into place once the executive who attempts to promote some change moves on to another position.

Really, arguing about culture is like debating why an airplane can fly.  We know there are scientific principles and aerodynamic reasons for flight, but most of us can’t describe them yet we willing strap ourselves in and read comfortably during the flight.  Culture is similar to that – most executives can’t define and can’t control corporate culture, but willingly partake of the impact and benefits.

Why is corporate culture powerful?

Corporate culture is powerful for at least three significant reasons.  First, it defines what people should focus on and what they should avoid.  Yes, this should come from managers or executives, but there aren’t enough managers or executives to go around telling people what to focus on.  Culture, formal and informal, defines what is valuable, what is important and what will be rewarded.  Second, culture is cohesive.  It helps a broadly distributed organization work to common purposes, without constantly consulting a documented process map or decision tree.  Culture helps people in very disparate organizations make similar decisions given the same data.  Third, culture acts as both an on-boarding mechanism and as a guidepost to bring people into line, or cause people who aren’t aligned to the culture to leave.  Culture reinforces itself – attracting more people who think similarly to the culture and forcing those with different perspectives to change their thinking or encouraging them to leave.  These powers are vast and important – they shape the way work gets done and how people think.

Why is culture important for innovators?

That last sentence says it all – culture shapes the way work gets done and how people think.  Culture reinforces specific goals, work styles and perspectives and rejects others.  When new ideas arise in a company, the culture quickly surrounds the ideas like antibodies, evaluating the idea to determine if 1) it is a threat to the culture and 2) if it is within acceptable bounds of the existing frameworks.  If either of these concepts isn’t true, the culture will try to reject, stymie or change the idea until it is killed or changed to fit within the cultural framework.

What does existing culture do to innovators?

Is your Culture Kryptonite for Innovators?

Unless your existing culture sponsors and encourages innovation (a very small minority of companies) culture has a corrosive effect on most people who want to explore and promote innovation.  Most cultures exist to protect and defend “business as usual”, and innovation in inevitably a threat to existing business process.  Therefore, culture blocks innovation and innovators, telling them “we’ve never done that before” or “that failed the last time we tried it”.  Culture ensures that safe, incremental ideas are funded and new, risky ideas don’t receive resources or funding.  Innovators are constantly scrambling to find money, time and resources to pursue even simple ideas.  Further, the culture presents a skeptical face to new ideas.  Innovators are asked – do you really think that will fly?  Their ideas are belittled.  The tools they use, especially tools to discover future needs or understand how the future will unfold, seem strange and unfamiliar.  The work seems frivolous next to the “hard” and valuable work of achieving the next quarter.  In short, existing cultures isolate, frustrate, belittle and starve good innovators.  Which is why far more entrepreneurial firms create interesting new products than large corporations.

Can you create a culture of innovation in an existing business as usual company?

I think the answer is “yes”, but the time, focus and commitment necessary is significant – starting from the most senior executives and working through to the most important keepers of the culture – middle managers.  Creating a culture of innovation starts by reframing the importance of innovation, carefully defining what innovation is and then constantly reinforcing the importance of innovation by setting specific goals, measuring innovation progress and changing compensation and reward programs to reinforce innovation.  And “innovation” isn’t a “this year” thing, by the way.  I hear far too frequently that someone’s CEO has decided that innovation is going to be the focus for the year.  As if your corporate culture is intimidated by a yearly focus, or can be whipped into shape within that timeframe – or will remain in its new state once the focus changes.

There is no free lunch, especially where corporate culture is concerned.  Too many firms, too many executives have become comfortable with cultures that return enough to keep shareholders happy but those same cultures resist innovation.  Your innovators are frustrated, isolated and angry, and are voting with their feet.  As more and more innovators leave, the short-term, efficient, business as usual culture is only reinforced, creating a vicious cycle of ever more efficiency and increasingly, no capability or appetite for innovation.

Your culture may seem innocuous, but many cultures are kryptonite to innovators.  And, unlike in the Superman comic strip, there more to be done than simply removing the kryptonite in order to get more innovation.  You’ll need innovators who have skills and understand how to get things done.  The absence of innovation barriers by itself will not ensure innovation success.

imagecredit: tvaddict & networkempower

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

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  1. Unless like the US Supreme Court, you believe corporations are people, this statement seems a tad off to me: “Corporate culture is really the belief system a company has about itself and how it operates.”

    People in the company are the ones holding the beliefs, and different people may hold different beliefs. As Edgar Schein has noted, “A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems that has worked well enough to be considered valid and is passed on to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

    When individuals (particularly those in leadership positions) start to demonstrate different ways of doing things and being with each other, over time the culture can change.

  2. I think this is a great article. Myself and a couple of colleagues have tried to launch a share-point platform to encourage people to log ideas with the promise of a cash reward to the best idea. The culture of the organization is not one that encourages innovation and I fear this type of strategy may promote innovation in the short term but actually restrict it in the long term.

    Do you think that this type of strategy can lead to a culture shift or are we looking at innovation from a totally narrow perspective.

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