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How your organisation's culture plays a role in innovation

Anna Barlow avatar

Anna Barlow

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How your organisation's culture plays a role in innovation

Over a series of four articles we will be taking a look at the role that company culture plays in innovation through viewing organisational culture through different lenses.

The second lens is how to work with internal resistance to creating innovation change that will likely occur .

Culture as an Immune System

So why does organisational culture even matter when it comes to innovation? At the risk of reminding us we are in a global pandemic, Michael Watkins describes culture as “the organisation’s immune system”. He states: “Culture is a form of protection that has evolved from situational pressures. It prevents “wrong thinking” and “wrong people” from entering the organisation in the first place”.

Last month I shared Jerry Connor and Lee Sears’ model on the different colours of organisational wallpaper. The idea is, different colours represent various aspects a company culture can display. Connor and Sears’ describe organisational immune systems as the tendency of an organisation or society to reject misfits. Now that you have established what the culture is - how do you find a way to innovate within it? 

If your role in the organisation is to create change through innovation, you are probably going to disrupt  at least some of the existing culture. The reality is most people hate disruption and they hate change.  To be successful, you’ll need to know what to do to prevent the organisational immune system from protecting itself and staging a counter attack. If you don’t, every effort you and your innovation team make could end in failure.

Most large organisations display some or all of the following qualities:

  • many decision making layers
  • little time or tolerance for experimentation and learning
  • siloed thinking
  • protective behaviours driven by low psychological safety.

If this sounds like your organisation, it is likely you or the people working there will find it difficult to innovate. So what can you do about it?

One approach that is often taken with larger companies is to create an innovation incubator or to send some teams off on a 12 week corporate accelerator. I’ve affectionately termed this the “Quarantine approach”.  Sending the innovation team off to quarantine for 12 weeks is an effective way to protect the team from the organisational immune system. Of additional benefit, the core business is not distracted from its own goals. The separation allows for both the core business and the innovation team to keep focused on their own specific purpose without either side feeling threatened.

I’m a big fan of corporate accelerators, it’s one of the reasons I joined Startupbootcamp. I’ve seen individuals, teams and companies achieve a great deal of success through this approach. Teams go through a hugely steep learning curve, grow in confidence and build their skill sets in a short period of time. New projects are developed and implemented rapidly without the constraints and distractions of “business as usual”.

I must throw out a word of caution - attempting to run a corporate accelerator, without concurrently working with the core business leaders stands a very high chance of failure. In addition to the successes I have been a part of, I have also seen several examples of innovation teams and their 12 week old ideas trying to re-join the core business only to experience full blown organ(isational) rejection.

To avoid the rejection, your company’s  immune system can be made ready for the return of the innovation team.  To do this there are three key areas to focus on when it comes to your organisation’s innovation culture:

  1. Mindset - listen out for the mindsets that are displayed within your organisation. Are they growth mindsets “we don’t know the answer but we can experiment and find out”, or fixed mindsets “this is how we always do things around here”. You’ll want to be promoting a growth mindset.
  2. Methods - what tools, processes and approaches are you currently using? Are they fit for working with the uncertainty that innovation projects can bring, or are they designed for more predictable “business as usual” projects?
  3. Momentum - how are you going to ensure the momentum is not lost when teams return to the core? Are the key corporate business functions, such as legal, finance, procurement, ready to help keep momentum up?

The trick here is to work together and avoid overwhelm. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Next time we will explore ways that innovation leaders can work on these three areas in a way that ensures change starts to happen, and will last.

Anna Barlow avatar

Anna Barlow

Food Innovation Partner @ Startupbootcamp Australia