Innovation and Culture

In my work around Innovation, i’ve become increasingly interested in culture, specifically the notion that we may require a certain fluidity, that culture may be optimised in specific spaces, and that the very optimisation that permits us to thrive, may actively sub-optimise us for new challenges. I shared a draft of this framework late last year, but today i have simplified it, and added more context: the premise is that innovation may just be the start of a transformation journey, and not necessarily the hardest part.

Innovation and Culture

In this work, i use the notion of ‘Action Sets’, to describe the way that things are done. For example, making toast is an action set: i get the bread out, put it in the toaster, depress the lever, and wait for my breakfast. Somewhere in the world, somebody is building a Toasting Robot: they are innovating, but they have not yet disrupted me. Certainly their robot is picking up bread, their machine learning algorithm is analysing optimal carbonisation algorithms, and they are getting excited about their future sales on Amazon, but i am still making toast the old fashioned way. To disrupt me, they would remove my need to manually carry out that process.

The language of the model is this: it explores five manifestations of culture. Culture can be ‘Known’, ‘Innovative’, ‘Experimental’, ‘Disruptive’, or ‘Exploitive’.

A Known Culture is one that relies on existing, and repeated, action sets: it’s constrained (in the language of the Dynamic Change Framework), and safe. If you just want toast, and you want it as cheaply, efficiently, and optimised as possible, then you want a Known Culture. Much of the structures of hierarchy and organisation that exist around us are about making cultures know, optimised, and safe.

Innovation is not that hard: ideas come aplenty. An Innovative Culture explores new action sets: it builds prototype robots and flying plates. It has a certain determination, and a deeply embedded methodology for creativity. An innovative culture can probably co-exist, or concurrently exist, with a Known one. Both can be held fairly safely, if separately, with each regarding the other at a suspicious distance. Organisations that develop a carbuncle of innovation do so by maintaining separation in the two cultures.

But to do anything with innovation, we need an Experimental Culture, a culture that actively takes risk, that burns risk as the fuel of change, and iterates new action sets. This is a learning culture: learning to exploit the innovation, to build momentum and certainty. Experimental Cultures have to have a deep understanding of failure, of the process of experimentation, need to be highly open to conflicting stories and truths, and must hold their power and pride in risk and uncertainty. Experimental Cultures may be reasonably safe, but increasingly irritate incumbent culture: they are straying a long way from the Known.

A Disruptive Culture is one that actively negates previous action sets: it is predatory. A known culture will not consider a Disruptive one to be ‘nice’. Indeed, it will probably try to kill it. Most organisations fail to get to Disruption, foundering on the seas of innovation or experimentation. To get to Disruption is remarkably hard, because Disruption requires us to actually change. And to leave the old behind.

But Disruption is not the goal: disruption is costly, risky, and impermanent. If we are at Disruption, we have high potential to fail, which is why i end with an Exploitative culture, a term i use carefully.

Black Swans: Innovation and disruption

A culture of Exploitation is not one that exploits it’s people: it’s one that can exploit the innovation, and optimise the disruption. It takes the Disruption and re-grounds it into everyday reality. It optimises it. This is how we drive efficiency, make ourselves safe again, and extract profit. Only by exploiting innovation can we build sustainability into the business.

So we have five different cultures, some of which exist in opposition to each other, some of which exist in tension. And some of which compliment, if developed at the right time.

I’m using this work to look at disruption and change, and as part of the wider exploration of the Socially Dynamic Organisation, and will continue to #WorkOutLoud as i do so.


About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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