The paradoxical nature of innovative cultures

In my role as the lead for a newly formed "Innovation Services" team, I have gone back and forth over the past year on understanding what can best drive innovation at a big company - culture change that bubbles up new ways of working, or building new products/services/businesses that are innovative themselves. In some ways it can feel like a chicken or egg question - can you really do one without the other? Especially in a place where there is very little executive support (vocal or explicit) for innovation, I have come to believe that as a very small team we might make a bigger impact by creating new things and then using those as proof points to show the company that it is possible to achieve interesting, better things when testing, learning, and taking risks.

In my argument I often reference an interview with Larry Keeley, co-founder of Doblin (where I formerly worked), where he notes that culture is like a cloud - if you squeeze it too hard it floats away and you've lost the ability to influence. He advocates for building innovation as a capability or competence, and that a culture will be built on the heels of that success.

To figure out how to drive the greatest impact, my team is attempting a bottoms-up and top-down strategy, focusing on both enabling employees and engaging leadership (taking our own medicine in testing and learning what works and what doesn’t in building culture and new products). A recent HBR article, "The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures," highlights so many of the conversations, revelations, and frustrations I've experienced in the past year. An innovation culture in a corporate environment is full of paradoxes. It’s a challenge, but a rewarding one when it works out.

A few things in particular that stood out (and which may seem no-nonsense, but that makes them all the harder to implement):

  1. A tolerance for failure requires having extremely competent people

  2. Being more disciplined about killing losing projects makes it less risky to try new things

  3. If people are afraid to criticize, openly challenge superiors’ views, debate the ideas of others, and raise counterperspectives, innovation can be crushed

    1. ("To challenge too strongly is to risk looking like you’re not a team player" -> I have many times felt this way! But still continue to challenge)

  4. Innovation systems need to be able to take in information and input from a diverse set of contributors, and then do something with that data; accountability and collaboration can be complementary, and accountability can drive collaboration

  5. You need structural and cultural flatness so that people feel empowered to take actions, make decisions, and voice their opinions

    1. This requires strong leadership that can communicate goals and articulate key operating principles

Harvard Business Review: “The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures”