Creating A Culture Of Innovation

We love the words ‘culture’ and ‘innovation’. To have a ‘culture of innovation’ must be a wonderful thing. But do we have useful, working definitions for these terms that help us to move forward? They can mean lots of things to lots of people. We end up spinning our wheels in pointless, conceptual conversations without making progress. It all gets too hard and we leave it to someone else.

A “toxic culture” becomes the scapegoat for all sorts of problems. No one takes responsibility for it as they don’t know where to start. “Innovation” becomes limited to the big idea that must be the next major disruption in the industry. Again, someone else’s problem.

A leadership team I’ve been working with has a mandate to innovate. We explored what innovation means and how to create a culture that enables it. Our goal was working definitions not perfect definitions.

Defining Innovation

Nick Skillicorn asked 15 people that work in the innovation space to define the term. Differing responses from each person. The consolidation of responses landed on:

Executing an idea which addresses a specific challenge and achieves value for both the company and customer.

We thought this was a useful way to define innovation. We could break it down to things we could focus on: 1. executing ideas 2. addressing specific challenges 3. achieving value for the organisation or customer.

Some of the group realised that they were innovating already. Doing little things that were new and adding value to the business. We all had examples of innovation taking place in the business.

Defining Culture

A working definition I use for ‘culture’ is how we think, speak and act together. We can observe the mindsets, language and behaviour to check the current state of our culture. We can define what we want each of these to look like in our desired culture. In 5 years time, what mindsets will be on display? How will people be talking to each other and customers? How will we act when we do well and when we make mistakes?


Ok. Stop. Why should we innovate and what is the point of culture? We must answer these questions in our specific context. Without this sense of guiding purpose, we don’t know what kind of behaviour we need in our culture. We don’t know what is actually valuable to our customers or company. Or how to prioritise and execute the myriad of ideas that get generated.

Is innovation to differentiate our business to be more competitive? Create new revenue streams or a sustainable business? Become more efficient in our operations? All the above? Your answers will give the direction needed for your innovative activities.

Is our focus on culture about becoming more effective as a team? Creating a great workplace that attracts talent? Driving learning and performance in our organisation?

How do we go about it?

Culture develops over time as we form habits and norms as a group. It’s a complex beast. We need a place to start…

To create a culture of innovation we need to combine the definitions to answer one question. What are the ways that we can think, speak and act together to execute ideas which address a specific challenge and achieve value for both the company and the customer?

Below are some suggestions that may help us on the journey.

Think together.

Adopting a learning and improvement mindset. I’ve written before about the growth mindset and Carol Dweck’s great work in this area. People think of the challenges they face as opportunities to learn and improve. They encourage others to think the same.

When something take a lot of effort, we think “I get to do hard things.”

When a challenge looms large in front of us, we think “This is an opportunity to grow.”

When we experience setbacks, we think “Make it right then move forward.”

When we face criticism, or receive feedback, we think “Take the gift and make a plan.”

Speak together.

First, tell purposeful stories. Share examples of where you have seen the execution of ideas that add value to the company and the customer. Make space in group settings to tell these stories in an authentic way. Not lipservice, but a recognition of people living out the culture you desire.

Second, talk about the assumptions you’re making. See this article by Anthony Boobier for a case study on the UX team at BNZ implementing this.

The language of assumption enables psychological safety. Google researched what factors determined their most effective teams. Psychological safety came out as the main factor. The ability for people to be vulnerable and take risks.

When we acknowledge that we make assumptions in most of what we do, we open the door to question ideas in a safe way. It becomes less about who’s idea is best but more about what is most valuable to customers. People within the team then feel like they can contribute to the conversation.

Next time you’re discussing a new plan, process or piece of work ask the group what you are assuming. Write them down on post-its or a whiteboard. See if you get more participation than usual. Once you’ve articulated the assumptions, prioritise the most important to be tested.

Act together.

Once we’ve identified the assumptions, we need to test these. A simple model for experimentation (there are lots of great ones out there) will help. Assumption -> Test -> Measure -> Validate or Invalidate.

I’ve seen a few teams try new things. Often they take a throw-it-up-and-see-what-sticks approach. We’ve all done this before. The experimentation model requires us to be clear on what we’re testing and measuring. The goal is to learn. Whether we validate or invalidate our assumption we’ve learned something. Think how many project failures we’d have avoided if we invalidated some assumptions early.

Strategyzer has a couple of useful tools to guide experiments. You can interchange “hypothesis” for “assumption” if you wish. Then work through the next three steps to work out a real plan to validate your assumption.

A successful experiment may provide a new way to execute an idea. A failed experiment provides direction in how to refine an idea or what not to waste time on.  When we’ve tried this approach we’ve seen greater engagement in teams as they figure out the best approach.  As they gain insights within safe boundaries. Rather than following orders on a plan that may work but may also fail.

Great leaders innovate the factory

David Burkus says “Great leaders don’t innovate the product, they innovate the factory.” This speaks to the executing of valuable ideas regarding how we go about our work. Not just what we produce. This is at the heart of a sustainable culture of innovation. Focusing on how we get to the place we want to be as a group.

This means we are all involved. It’s not just for the designers or leadership teams. No matter where we are in the organisation we can have influence through how we think, speak and act. Are we willing to shift our mindset to looking for improvements and learnings in the way we work? Will we talk about the assumptions of how we go about our work as a group? Will we try new ways of working with a commitment to a robust experimental process?

Where to begin?

Start small. Run your own experiment on an assumption you’re making in your workplace. You may need to brainstorm with the team what that could be. Find a way to test that assumption. Measure the engagement or output of the team through feedback or other data. Then decide whether the new way has merit or needs refining. Encourage others in the team to do the same.

Over time we’ll see new, valuable ideas executed and teams more engaged.

Doug Maarschalk is a trainer, facilitator and coach who uses the principles of intrinsic motivation as the foundation for his work. He has worked with New Zealand businesses in the horticulture, legal, accounting, financial services, real estate and healthcare sectors.
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