Can Your Culture Make Your Company More Innovative?

Well sure, but the issue for many is whether a company needs to change its culture to become more innovative. Much has been written on this topic over the last few decades as the idea of innovation as a driver of competitive value comes in and out of vogue. (To be fair, it is never really out of favor, just not necessarily the idea du jour).

In the 1980s to be innovative one needed to emulate 3M. In the early part of this century the seers suggested you emulate Apple. The problem is both companies have historically been innovators, but they do it very differently. If you attempt to emulate both, you will fail, and if you attempt to emulate something your culture won’t support, you will fail.

What appears to be solid research published a few years back supports an observation I have made over the years (thus I support the research results), and that is that there is more than one way to be an innovative company. Further, I believe that trying to do it other than “your” way will not produce useful results.

It is extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible, to change the culture of a company without changing a substantial number of the people who work in the company. This is impractical for most companies, so unless the culture of your company is anti-innovative, changing the culture should be your last option. The question then is how do you leverage your existing culture to be more innovative.

In their Harvard Business Review article, Wunker and Pohle note from their research that there are four distinct innovation archetypes that produce effective innovation. Further they note that one is not “better” than another. This suggests that your company should select the archetype that most closely aligns with your culture.

The first archetype is the Marketplace of Ideas. This is the approach used by 3M and Google. In this archetype people are free to explore ideas that may be helpful to the company and to use 10%-15% of their time in exploring these ideas. Ideas are presented to decision committees and those committees select the ideas that will be further funded. Just because an idea is rejected does not doom it and the idea champion can continue to work on it (albeit with limited funding) in an attempt to gain support. Post It Notes were famously developed this way. W.L. Gore is an extreme example of this archetype. The key here is that the innovation driver is bottom up, not top down.

The second archetype is the Visionary Leader. Apple has used this archetype since its inception. In this approach the team executes on the leader’s ideas. It is incumbent upon the leader to realistically understand what the company is capable of doing well.

The third archetype is Systematic Innovation. This approach is used by many companies and is the core approach taught by Eureka Ranch. In this approach innovations are focused in support of the company’s strategy and will be incremental, significant or breakthrough in nature depending on the strategy of the company. This approach is top down as opposed to the Marketplace of Ideas, which is bottom up.

The last archetype is the Collaborative approach. In this model, innovations are created by using outside partners. The movie industry uses this approach for most of its innovations. The major studios obtain innovative products from outside developers. Some of the more recent studios such as Lucas Films and Dreamworks do not use this approach. The Spin Toothbrush from Crest (Proctor and Gamble) was developed outside of the company using this approach. The success of this approach requires access to and partnership with innovators outside your company, and that you not have an NIH (Not Invented Here) culture in your company.

When I present these archetypes as part of my presentation, Managing For innovation, some executives ask if they can be a mix of two of these approaches. My response is not and be successfully innovative. Each of these approaches requires a distinctly a different culture and it is likely your culture is better aligned with one than the others. Figure out which one that is and then learn to implement that archetype excellently.


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