Ideas Change Culture or Culture Changes Ideas

by Jeffrey Phillips

Ideas Change Culture or Culture Changes IdeasThere’s an interesting aphorism I’d like to explore today, highlighted in the article title. Ideas change your culture or culture changes your ideas. There is both an opportunity and a challenge embedded in that statement.

First, let’s describe why the statement is true. If you have interesting, radical, truly different ideas, then you either have a culture that embraces ideas and innovation, or your innovation team has been isolated from the decision making and priorities of the rest of your business. Arthur C. Clarke, the scientist and science fiction writer, had three laws about predicting the future. They are:

1. When a distinguished scientists predicts that something is possible, he or she is probably right. When they predict something is impossible, they are probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It is the third law that is most interesting to us in this discussion. Any new idea, suitably radical, is indistinguishable from magic and therefore likely to be laughed at or ignored. Most corporate cultures don’t deal with “magic” very well.

Your culture will either embrace interesting, disruptive ideas and shift its attitudes and behaviors to engage those ideas, or it will ignore, reject or ridicule the ideas until they fall into line with expectations or are summarily dismissed. A firm cannot create a radical new product or service without significant impact to the corporate attitudes, behaviors and beliefs. The very experience of creating a radical new idea will by definition force change on the culture. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions”. The same is true with corporate culture. Therefore, a radical idea will change the culture, or the culture will change the idea.

Ideas Change Culture or Culture Changes Ideas

Second, let’s examine why this is important. It is almost impossible for a conservative, reflexive, predictable culture to create a radical new product or service. The culture can’t embrace it and won’t allow it. And even if someone were bold enough to try, the culture isn’t open to the change that’s necessary to deliver the idea and sustain it. In this case a good idea is rejected, or a radical idea is simplified to become acceptable to the organization. The culture changed the idea.

This concept matters because two very important things happen when the culture changes the idea. First, the culture is reinforced. Right or wrong, the culture grows stronger and more reflexive. By demonstrating its muscle and resistance, it becomes stronger and fewer people will resist it. Every time the culture changes an idea, the culture becomes stronger and innovation becomes more difficult. Second, once the culture changes one idea, it will seek to change every idea. As its strength grows, everyone naturally assumes that the ideas must change, not the culture. Changing the idea becomes inevitable.

These two factors ensure that the company becomes ever more inflexible, intolerant of new ideas and resistant to evident change. Business as usual grows in stature and importance as markets, competitors and most importantly, customers and prospects shift desires and demands. When real innovation is no longer a luxury but a necessity, the culture innately resists innovation even as the organization realizes the importance of innovation. But the culture can’t change – that’s been established.

As we move into an era where innovation is a regular requirement, not an occasional luxury, ask yourself – do we want a culture that changes ideas, or a culture that can change as ideas require it to change?

image credit: overtonecom & learnaboutit

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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 innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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  1. Innovation challenges the status quo! And organizational culture is how the status quo expresses itself… Hence, Innovation challenges the prevailing culture. And I guess that holds true, even in an organization that would pretend it has an Innovation Culture! – @cdn

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