A culture of innovation

Ricardo Se Cestari

Every organisation is desperate to be innovative these days. The threat of being killed by a young disruptive startup looms at almost every industry, from taxi to recruiting, from accommodation to accounting and so on. Yet, uncountable directives to be innovative coming from the top fail. Many times, large budgets are allocated to fuel innovation-related projects and little is actually accomplished. The quest to be innovative has many misconceptions and extreme challenges, both for large organizations and for smaller ones.


No matter what initiatives have been taken, the first and most important change that has to take place at an organisation that seeks to be innovative, is in its culture. This is easier said than done.

The change and championing of a desired Culture and Core Values has to come from the top. If the top is not aligned to the desired values and not willing to take the necessary actions to see them lived in the culture, your organisation will not be an innovative one and that is it. It might have some springs of innovation here and there, but they will eventually die and the organisation will not evolve well into the future. If you are at the top and reading this article, great, you have the right mindset. If you are not at the top, your first order of action is to make sure you or someone you know can influence and, ultimately, get the culture change buy-in (and true championing) from the top.

Considering that the top is won, a few things need to take place.

The first one is that your organisation needs to properly define the core values that will drive the culture you want it to have. Most of the time, core values are already defined and are known, but they are not really followed or championed. For core values to really drive company culture, they need to be lived by and championed by the leadership. That is why the top needs to be fully into this change.

When you are defining or reviewing your organizational values, make sure the basic ones needed for innovation are somehow listed among them. They are:

Open and honest communication. Ideas feed and grow from each other. It is a condition of their evolution into something successful (Check out the TED talk from Steven Johnson on Where Ideas Come From below). Additionally, people need to be able to safely expose their real problems and challenges, so that others can jump in with new ideas to help them out. Tools and initiatives need to be in place for people from different departments, business units, backgrounds and interests to talk to each other and contribute mutually in a frequent and effortless manner.

Accepting and driving change. A large amount of excellent ideas will make no difference in an organisation if the environment does not accept change. People who are change-averse or who are "Devil's advocates" too often need to change or leave. In an innovative organization, there is no space for people constantly putting blocks on new initiatives (check the concept of Lean Startup if costs are of your concern). When hiring, it is important to make a good effort to identify people who will have a natural role of internal entrepreneurs ("intrapreneurs"). People with initiative must be recognized, no matter if they fail. An environment that facilitates experimentation and rewards action is also essential for innovation.

Selflessness and Teamwork, or something aimed at restricting egos that clog the innovation arteries. People who fight to keep ownership of an idea will hurt the innovation process. Ideas need to change and evolve, and this can only be done in a team environment, with people of all types and backgrounds contributing to ideas and mutating them into something better and better. Ideas need to be experimented and, if needed, abandoned, radically changed or even 'pivoted'. It is all part of the process of achieving innovation and whoever holds on to an obsolete idea only to get the credit of it, will damage the organisation and the innovation culture. Ideas are just the seed. Successful implementation and follow through is what really matters.

Continuous Learning. Learning and innovation walk hands in hands. People can only be innovative if they have a diversity of background information and knowledge to build ideas upon. As mentioned, ideas feed and grow from each other. All great minds stood on shoulder of giants. They all studied and acquired previous knowledge of a variety of their predecessors to be able to stitch concepts together, add their own experience, put a spin on it, and come up with a new concept. Knowledge, especially a good diversity of it, is essential to Innovation. Exposure of new concepts, due to continuous learning, always sparks new ideas in people's minds.

Courage to stand up for the organizational values and to withstand possible failure of initiatives. If people, and specially leaders, drop their energy and courage in standing up for the organisational values, the whole effort is doomed. It is everyone's responsibilities to remind each other and their leaders when the core values are not being followed. Innovation needs to be core to the culture, and the championing of the core values are central to the development of that culture.

How to actually make these values come to life in an organization is a matter of another article (and possible course), but here are a few ideas on the topic:

Most of the time, leaders define those core values and try to champion them but what usually happens is that they are often unable to grasp how aligned the organisation is to their core values and what to do about the possible lack of alignment. This blindness usually happens due too many levels of hierarchy, or sometimes by the leader's own inability to grasp the reality, or even due to the lack of tools and data to expose what is actually happening in the organisation. There is a blindness to how people are actually behaving and what is the actual alignment of the organisation to the desired core values. Organisations and their leaders usually lack the ability to see what the culture really is at the moment.

A good, properly mounted and applied Organisational Culture and Climate Survey can answer those questions and expose any incongruence between the desired culture and the actual one. I'll not go into details on how to create one here but if you want to know more about it, please click on this link and vote for the creation of an article or an online course on the topic.

Another matter of importance for creating an innovative organisation, is to have tools and practices at hand that enable leaders to live and apply those values in the workplace. I'll cover this in a following article. Check it out soon here.


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