Five Questions that Will Help You Build an Innovation Culture

The Discipline of Innovation

The Problem with Top-Down Innovation

Peter Drucker once said “culture eats strategy for lunch.”  And that can be a problem for people that want to innovate – they often work inside of organisational cultures that don’t support innovation very well.

So, if you’re in that situation, what can you do?

One suggestion that I hear a lot is: “We need to get top management behind innovation.”

That’s true, as far as it goes.  When senior leaders see the value of innovation, and they support the efforts of people trying to do new things, then you can build an innovation culture more quickly.

However, I’ve known firms whose top managers passionately believe that innovation is important, and they do all they can to support it, yet their organisations still fail to become more innovative.  Often, this is an “air sandwich” problem, or it reflects a poor understanding of how innovation works.

Top-level support for innovation can be useful, but it’s no guarantee of success.

There are two problems with the “wait for the managers” approach to building an innovation culture.  One is that you are playing the victim – you would innovate, if only the evil managers would let you.  This is a trap, and, ultimately, a handy excuse for not innovating.

The second issue is that waiting for someone else to solve the problems breeds passivity, and you can’t passively innovate.  Innovation is an action sport.

Solution: Bottom-up Innovation

What should we do?

Let’s start at the bottom – with culture.  People often talk about culture as though it’s an immovable force that smashes into them.  That’s what “we have a risk-averse culture” is saying – and I hear this all the time.

But culture isn’t an external thing that we have no control over.  An organisational culture is simply what we do every day: it is the sum total of the interactions between all of the stakeholders in an organisation on a day-to-day basis.

In other words, we are the culture.

As Harold Jarche says:

Culture is an emergent property of people working together. Leadership is also an emergent property, I am becoming more convinced…

And, that means that we can change it.  Every single day, we face choices about how we interact with people, and with ideas.  Most of the time, we don’t even think about these choices – they’re habits.  The first step to building an innovation culture, then, is to examine the habits that you take for granted.

The Discipline of Innovation


The good news is the we re-build our own culture every day, through the choices we make – we can control culture.  The bad news is that it’s hard work – that’s why we need the monkey wrench to make innovation work.

Five Questions to Build Your Innovation Culture

Here are five questions that you can ask that will help you identify the hidden habits that make it hard to build your own innovation culture:

  1. How do I respond to the ideas of others? The answer should be: in the same way I want others to respond to mine i.e. supportive, constructive and fair.  The reality is that often we don’t do this.  If we have had our ideas shot down in the past, then we sometimes don’t respond to the ideas of others as well as we should.  If we want our organisations to be more innovative, we have to act in the ways that we want everyone else to act – by supporting the innovative ideas of others.
  2. Do I understand what adds value for others in the firm? Getting your ideas to spread is an important part of innovation – and you can’t do this if you don’t have a clear idea of the value that you are creating for people.  Inside of organisations, this means that we have to have a good understanding of the goals and values of those we are trying to convince to take up our new idea.  If we can effectively align our new ideas with their goals, then our chances of success just went up.
  3. Who is in my innovation tribe? There is strength in numbers.  And also, innovation works more effectively in groups – it is a collaborative effort.  The best way to build an innovation culture is to find the like-minded people, and build on stuff that works.  This is much more effective than trying to knock down barriers.  Here’s a bonus to working within a tribe: they can’t fire everyone.  Even if your overall culture is “risk-averse” (and this is not true nearly as often as people assume that it is), if everyone starts to innovate, it’s a lot harder to shut down many new ideas than it is to stamp out one.
  4. How much can I get away with? How much room to move do you have in your current position?  If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you have the authority to make at least some decisions.  What are they?  How much experimenting can you try within those boundaries?  Even if you have $0 to spend, it’s more than you think.
  5. What can I do right now? When she was starting out her business, Coco Chanel said that her philosophy was “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”  That’s a pretty great innovation philosophy.  I’ve outlined a seven-step program for innovating RIGHT NOW! Try it.

The bottom line message is this: don’t wait for someone to empower you, empower yourself.  We create the cultures that we live and work in – and that means that we can change them.  Not instantly, and not easily – but we can.

If you want your organisation to be more innovative, start building your innovation culture right now.

Postscript: if you don’t want to click on the link, here is the seven-step program for innovating RIGHT NOW!

  1. Think about how much you can get away with – if you manage a budget, how much discretion to you have? If you don’t have a budget, what are the parts of your job that you control?
  2. Make a list of 10 things that you can do within the current scope of your work that will make things better for the people with whom you interact – customers, co-workers, bosses, whoever.
  3. Do those things.
  4. Figure out which ones worked, and do those more.
  5. Figure out which ones didn’t work, learn why not, then forget about them.
  6. Apply what you learned to the next set of ideas.
  7. Do it all again.
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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

16 thoughts on “Five Questions that Will Help You Build an Innovation Culture

  1. I appreciate for your sharing. I totally agree with your ideas about five questions how to create the innovation culture. Google usually give their employees 10% free time to experiment new ideas. Now a lot of companies use their employees’ time as a reward because they think most of the biggest innovation will come as the new motivator. Sometimes, the old creation is not bad at all; therefore we should not step in all the time. That is why we should spend our time to think about the old innovation before stepping in the new ones. Most of people believe that new innovations are always good. It is not true for all the time. In my opinions, we should combine between the old and new ones. Then carefully consider which one is the best. The new culture and the old culture can make a big difference; we can create the new innovation culture depending on the old. To motivate the employees to create their innovation culture, we should use some worthless gifts for them. I remember one article from Booth School of Business in University of Chicago. One author talked that we should not use money as a gift because the receivers will not keep it for a long time. Money would be gone very soon. Gift would stay longer. I completely agree with him. Moreover, when the employees have something to motivate them, they will be interested to work hard and not mind to spend more time to create something new for their company. These are my opinions. They might not relate to 100% the topic; but I would like to share them. I hope you do not mind. Thanks a lot.

  2. One concern the bottom has is the tendency for the top to take fishing trips. Bottom up is disingenuous if the meritocracy and hegemony remains. Take the issue of professional staff career options and promotion. Druker said many wise things about this too, so I’d like to raise it.

    • Thanks Wilma – you’re absolutely right. We have to fix management and organisations as well – and it’s something that I’ve addressed a number of times. At the same time, it’s important for people to take the steps that they control as well. We have to fight on both fronts – it’s not just one or the other.

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