Culture of Innovation

culture of innovation

If an organization wishes to inspire and sustain innovation, a culture of innovation is required. And while there are many variations and hybrids within innovation cultures, the basic components remain constant. Of course, this does not mean that innovation can’t survive in a non-innovation culture; it just faces much longer survival odds and its success will likely be despite the organization’s culture and not because of it.

1. Bring in the Right People
It all starts with having the right people. A culture of innovation relies on identification of those already present whom are innovatively inclined AND recruitment/hiring of those that are and can be predicted to be innovatively inclined.

No matter how fantastic, cohesive and/or realistic an innovation strategy is, it will be to no avail if the right people aren’t behind it.

Quick question: Is your organization identifying, recruiting and/or hiring those that are innovatively inclined? If yes, how do you know that these folks are truly innovatively inclined? If no, what can your organization do to remedy this situation?

2. Develop Support at the Highest Levels
While there have been examples of innovation despite lack of senior management support, they are more the exception than the rule. Regardless which innovation model employed, a culture of innovation cannot be created, much less sustained without the continuing support of at least one senior executive.

Does your organization’s senior leadership acknowledge, appreciate and take tangible steps to foster innovation? If yes, are they limited to functional business units or are they dedicated resources towards innovation? If no, why are they not taking these steps and how best can we influence a change?

No matter how fantastic, cohesive and/or realistic an innovation strategy is, it will be to no avail if the right people aren’t behind it.


3. Organizational Innovation Model Choices
Even though there has been much written, spoken and expounded on regarding innovation, there are only four basic models with almost endless hybrids and variations within them. These models, in ascending quantities of organizational support/resources, are:

a. Ad-Hoc
• Innovation success resulting despite the organizational culture
• No designated organizational ownership
• No dedicated resources
• Network driven concept selection

b. Dedicated
• Senior executive driven
• Limited resources allocated
• No official organizational ownership
• Designated criteria for prospective projects
• Specific to functional business unit(s).
• Innovations tend to be adaptive and closely related to core

c. Focused
• Official and formal organizational ownership
• Higher level of resources allocated – still limited in nature
• Greater freedom with criteria – higher levels of transparency
• Multiple functional business units(s).
• Innovations can be transformational but only within the existing organization

d. All-In
• Formal and separate innovation units
• Significant and independent funding
• Greatest freedom with criteria – highest levels of transparency
• Innovation resources are separate from other existing business units
• Innovations are frequently transformational and leading to new businesses separate from the existing core business.

For the sake of sustainable innovation and the development of an innovative culture, the last three models are the only ones that should be considered.

What model most closely represents the reality at your organization? How well is this working? What can be improved? What do the resulting innovation look like – are they adaptive or radical/transformational? Are they limited to specific business units or are they entity-wide?

4. Allocation of Resources
When all is said and done, the type and level of resources allocated, truly determines the robustness and sustainability of an organizational culture of innovation. These resources are not only monetary in nature, but also executive time, which team members are participating and physical resources (meeting rooms, IT, etc.).

Even if senior leadership ostensibly supports innovation, how active are they in the process? What other managers, team members, funding, time and/or physical resources are continually designated for these initiatives?

Are continuing allocations of these resources inextricably tied to tangible success of all the initiatives? If yes, what is the result of initiative failure on the overall culture and continued resource allocation? If no, how does the organization respond to initiative failure(s)?

5. Release the Endorphins
There has been much discussion on the role that humor and even comedy improv can play in fostering and maintaining a culture of creativity and change, but did you know that it can also play a crucial role in innovation? In a study by Aseem Inam at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and published in the Journal for Education in the Built Environment, the answer is an unequivocal yes!

Some of the commonalities between improv and innovation included:

• The counter intuitive nature of innovation occurring in an apparently inefficient manner of brainstorming and exploration of all ideas, regardless of viability
• Innovation occurs from a team model where each team member individually contributes through “listening, suggesting, augmenting and extrapolating ideas of their own and of others.”
• A critical component is the ability to listen and being sensitive to ambient clues that may or not be disguised in otherwise mundane environments. (i.e. bricks, water, etc.)
• Through the suppression of the urge to self-edit and/or judging other, creativity can occur.
• Ideas can be more creative when team members are supportive and can add upon and extend from the original idea.
• “Innovation occurs when performers and designers have the courage to take thoughtful risks and to learn from failure by finding a level of comfort with it.”

6. Wrapping It All Up
If an organization is to be successful at building, maintaining and sustaining a culture of innovation, the right people must be on board, there must be tangible support from the highest levels down, there must be an identifiable system (or model) that guides the organization forward, appropriate resources must be allocated and confirmed and humor (or a lighter tone) should be present. All are critical for an organization seeking not only to innovate, but to have innovation imbued within its culture.

What model is most likely present in your organization? How can it be improved? Who else needs to sign on? Does your organization employ a different model and if so, how successful has it been? 

I look forward to your comments.

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Moe Glenner is a highly acclaimed thought leader on personal and professional leadership, change management and innovation. Moe is an in-demand corporate creativity consultant and frequent keynote, breakout and workshop speaker. His work is always informative, interesting and communicated in an entertaining and memorable style.

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

  • Cliff Berg

    Great article.

    I especially like the statement, “Ideas can be more creative when team members are supportive and can add upon and extend from the original idea.” It is really important for leaders – and staff – to realize that people contribute differently. Do not try to force everyone into the same model. For example, some people contribute ideas naturally through email, and others do so naturally in person in real time.

    It is also important to train people to try to listen for what someone is trying to say, instead of focusing on how they say it. For example, if someone offers an idea through email, but does not explain the idea fully, it is important to give the person the benefit of the doubt and think, “They did not fill in all the blanks but if I talk to him/her, I will probably learn the missing pieces in their argument”, instead of, “Their idea has holes in it, so I will dismiss it”.

    Leaders need to know this but everyone on a team does as well. I think that really effective team leaders are good at managing “dialectic discussion” – creating the conversations (in person, in email, whatever is appropriate for the moment) that drive thinking forward, instead of waiting for it to happen on its own. This is a point that is very well illustrated in Walter Isaacson’s recent book The Innovators.

    • Moe Glenner

      Thank you Cliff! We have a tendency to immediately judge ideas instead of recording them for later consideration. When this happens in an organization, ideation and innovation are stifled, since no one wants to look stupid or have their ideas considered such. It takes an intentional and cultural effort to encourage ideation for innovation to truly take hold.

  • susanmrushworth

    I read this with interest and while I don’t disagree with the article, when I relate it to my organisation I find a few gaps. I see the organisation (a university) as ad-hoc at best – the feedback from staff that whenever they try to get an innovation off the ground, it is killed stone dead by the bureaucracy. However, I’m sure that senior management think that we are at least at model 2.
    Where I see the gap is in the lack of precision about getting the right people. The senior management team is united in promoting the idea of innovation. There are even a couple of people genuinely championing it. However, my sense and that of those around me who have worked in this field for many year, is that although many of these people genuinely feel they are the ‘right’ people, they really don’t have a clue what innovation means in practice. How do you convince people who champion the cause, but “don’t know what they don’t know” that they actually are NOT the right people to make this happen.

    • Moe Glenner

      Thank you Susan! You bring up a critical component to not only innovation but change as well. Unless the organization is committed to an honest introspection and inventory of their own abilities, change will remain elusive. It all boils down to a “How do you know what you know?” mentality. Until the answer is verified (ideally independently) and senior organizational leadership can admit to their inabilities (in particular areas – after all, no one is expert at everything), nothing substantial or sustainable will occur. In essence, it is a culture issue. In an innovative culture, this admission is readily available along with the resources to pursue and gain the right knowledge. In a non-innovative culture, senior leaders won’t even know or admit to what they don’t know.