Culture Eats Innovation for Lunch

by Mick Simonelli

An organization’s culture must support the seeds of innovation if the innovation is to bear fruit

Ford Motor Company popularized Peter Drucker’s phrase, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Starting in 2006, Ford operationalized much of Drucker’s thoughts on the power of culture and even hung Drucker’s culture quote in their war room. The quote is a powerful recognition that culture is a key determinant in the success or failures of company strategies. And while the quote is still very appropriate for corporate strategy, there has now emerged a newer, tastier meal option for culture: innovation.

Innovation is a necessary component to any organization’s growth and future well being; we are all striving to develop new products and services. But just as culture can chew up a strategy pretty quickly, it can devour an innovation effort or program just as quickly. If the organization isn’t ready for change or new ways of doing things, culture won’t just eat strategy for breakfast – it will eat innovation for lunch and dinner as well.

Defining Culture

Culture can be defined as the cumulative knowledge, experience, beliefs, norms, attitudes and concepts associated with a group of people or an organization. But perhaps the best way to define culture is “the way we do things around here.”  Culture is the critical environment in which ideas will thrive and grow, or wither away and die.

Nurturing Innovation

A new idea is like a seed that an organization wants to grow into a thriving tree that will yield fruit for its customers and shareholders. But just as a seed does not grow in a vacuum, neither does an idea. Ideas must grow within the environment and culture of the organization. Just as seeds require the proper soil, light, moisture and air, so too innovative ideas require the right mix of organizational factors to help them grow and become fruitful.

Ideas don’t just grow on their own–they require leadership to guide and empower them, inspired people to shepherd them, processes to help the ideas to launch, strategic linkage to gain momentum with the company, communications that fit the organization, and market strategies to successfully launch the ideas. Seeds can eventually grow into great trees that produce fruit for the customer and enterprise, but only with the optimal mix of air, water, soil and light. Likewise, ideas have to have the right mix of culture to nurture them to produce value.

Kodak’s Missteps

History is full of examples of companies that possessed great ideas but didn’t have the organizational culture to help them grow. One of the most recent tragic examples of culture eating innovation for lunch was the swift decline of the once mighty Eastman Kodak company. The Economist article, “The Last Kodak Moment,” accurately portray Kodak as the Google of its time, but then pointed out how the culture of Kodak did not allow its inventions and discoveries to flourish. Kodak had been a dominant company for over 100 years and at one point had a near monopoly of the film market in the US. The company’s dominance extended to the development of some of the first digital cameras in the 1970’s—Kodak actually invented and patented the future cornerstone of photography but failed to help those ideas grow into business benefit.

Kodak possessed the seeds of the digital filming future but the culture of Kodak was not able to grow the new ideas. The company was complacent in its film model success and unable to adapt to different business models. Although Kodak executives tried to adapt after they saw the writing on the wall and the rapidly declining future of film, it was too little too late and in January of 2012 they filed for bankruptcy. The well-publicized failure of Kodak was not an idea failure, because they possessed the ideas, but it was a culture failure. The culture of Kodak was unable to operationalize and launch the ideas that would eventually force their demise. Likewise, many companies are able to recognize emerging ideas but are unable to grow them into fruitful innovations. It is the way in which the organization responds to those ideas that determines whether the ideas produce value or not.

Culture Creates Value

Even though culture is often overlooked, it must be acknowledged and addressed in order for a company to have significant and repeatable success. The ideas get all the press and accolades but without a supportive culture, they will wither and die. Ask any farmer what makes those seeds grow and he’ll tell you about the climate, the fertile soil, the amount of moisture and the light; and the farmer carefully manipulates those environmental factors to grow his fruit. Without them his seeds don’t grow.

Culture is the often neglected aspect of innovation and new ideas. Regardless of how great the idea might be, if the organization isn’t ready to help the idea grow and produce value, the culture will eat innovation for lunch.

image credit: lunchbeat.org (editor note: check it out)

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Mick Simonelli is an Innovation Thought Leaders & Independent Consultant. See Mick Simonelli.com ‘ Oct. 7, 2014: Mick Simonelli will be presenting “How to Assess Your Organization’s Innovation Program: Are You the Lead Dog or Stuck with the Same View” at Back End of Innovation (BEI) Las Vegas, Nevada