The Thing with Tools and Culture of Innovation

Creative Leadership, Creative Organizational Culture
The Thing!

The Thing!

So, there’s this “thing” I’ve noticed when organizations want to bolster innovation. Whether it’s the public sector, non-profits or private businesses, when organizations set out on a path to get better at innovation, there’s this weird thing hanging around in the conversations and questions about how to foster innovation. The “thing” is a hope that there is a secret tool for innovation or formula their employees could learn and when trained in it, innovation will automatically gush forth. I understand the “thing” and I hoped for a silver bullet as well when I started my research into what fosters relevant innovation in organizations.

“We all want someone to give us the secret truth, the real low-down, the inside dope about things – someone who knows more than we mere mortals know,” Josh Freed, director- The Trouble with Experts

Roots of the great false hope

This hope that there is a simple secret formula to innovation has a pattern.  My experience is that when the pattern is understood a bit better we can recognize it and then build more robust approaches to fostering meaningful innovation.  The pattern that keeps us hoping for simple solutions looks something like this…

Complexity and Overwhelm: People and organizations are overwhelmed with the pace of change and nature of challenges today. The overwhelm is marked by increased complexity, increased uncertainty and often not a lot of clarity around what the root causes of a challenge might be.

Humans Are weirdHumans get weird when faced with uncertainty: As humans we’re not great at navigating uncertainty. Typically when life gets complex and chaotic our weird response is to try to control it through power or superstitions. We can also find ourselves longing for simple answers and fixes. The dangerous thing is, the more uncertainty and complexity we experience, the more we can find ourselves insisting on oversimplified solutions and narrowly focusing just on what is familiar to us.  To make things worse, it’s easy to take advantage of our human vulnerability with uncertainty and so we end up easily buying into quick fixes, oversimplified truths and tools to save us or make us better. When these short sighted  solutions don’t work, we get disappointed, uncertainty increases and the search for a new silver bullet starts again. Too many of these disappointing cycles and some really ugly stuff might arise. For instance good people all of a sudden being open to fascist strong men with delusions that only they can fix a complex problem… But that’s a different post.

Whoa Whoa Whoa!

John Kania on complexityNow, I’m not trying to say that tools to foster innovative solutions are useless – they are important. I use innovation process tools, facilitate them, teach them and recognize they are an important part of the complex puzzle of fostering relevant innovation. The point I want to make is that we won’t create lasting innovation in our organizations if all we do is focus on getting our employees trained up in tools like Design Thinking, Social Lab processes, Strategic Foresight, CPS(Osborne-Parnes Creative Problem Solving), Lego Serious Play or any other tool of innovation.

We Need Both Culture and Tools!

If organizations are truly serious about innovation then the leadership in it needs to recognize the importance of investing in both tools of innovation and the longer term and tougher work of building and strengthening a culture of innovation. Why? One reason is that all innovations have a shelf life and if we get too attached to sustaining one innovation that was successful in the past, we will be unable to see opportunities and stay relevant. If we strengthen a culture of innovation we can keep adapting and innovating as our innovations rise and fall with the needs of the people we serve and the trends of the time.

Most organizations fail at producing relevant innovations because they don’t want to take the time to do the harder culture building work

Grumpy cat on creative culture and innovation


 Innovative culture treeInnovation Culture Analogy

Imagine for a moment a good innovation is like a full grown tree that bears fruit for many people to enjoy. To get a good tree to grow we need to provide the right conditions-we need the right soil, water, sun and care. In a similar way to providing the right conditions for a good fruit tree to grow, we need to provide the right creative culture for innovations to grow and bear fruit. And just like when we get the right field we can grow multiple fruit trees at the same time, if we develop a healthy culture we can grow multiple innovations. From a healthy culture of innovation, great ideas and innovations can keep arising, working for a while, falling and being recycled into the next thing. Most organizations fail at producing relevant innovations because they don’t want to take the time to do the harder culture building work.

Culture that Fosters Innovation

What is organizational culture?

Organizational culture is about how values show up in action, how people think, behave, interact and approach challenges. Striving to build an organizational culture where people at all levels approach challenges they face in creative, collaborative and thoughtful ways is quite tough to steward consistently in a large organization.

Example of an innovative culture

In my dream day job where for the past five years I’ve been the Senior Leader of Research and Social Innovation for a very large and very innovative Canadian disability rights and human service organization (Skills Society), we’ve been working hard at innovation culture building. We’ve persevered and invested in the long game and complex work of culture building because we know not just from the literature and research, but also from experience, that a healthy culture fosters resilience and innovation that adapts to the needs of the people we serve. 

Examples of some of our Social Innovations can be found here

What our employees say about our organizational culture can be found here

What the heck might this creative culture look like? 

  1. Al Etmanski on InnovationLearn from experience and be open to the new: There’s a danger in innovation work that people get a fetish for novelty. Mature innovation culture building recognizes it’s not all about chasing new shiny things. By creating a culture that strives to learn from experience and at the same time is open to new, creative, and sometimes crazy ideas you’ll be able to keep coming up with innovative solutions that meet the needs of the people you serve. In practice this means to help ensure people seek to learn from each other’s experiences and are open to new possibilities.
  2. Stewardship of bottom up solution finding: Innovative cultures recognize that rarely do true innovations come from the top of hierarchies. Innovative cultures strengthen the mindset in people that the best ideas could come from anywhere in their organizations. In practice this means having processes  in place to steward ideas and innovation from all levels.
  3. Seek creative collisions with other domains: If we stay in our silos we miss opportunities. Innovators and cultures that foster innovation are full of people who look for ideas and inspiration in unexpected places. Allow time and support initiatives of employees to get ideas from areas they are not used to and then find ways to connect those ideas to challenges they are working on.
  4. E. Abbey quote on innovation and status quoSupport diversity in problem solving: Jonas Salk, the developer of the vaccine that eradicated polio, made it a practice to assemble men and women from different domains in his think tanks. Invite people from other domains and ask them how they would solve a challenge you are working on. 
  5. Invest in people who don’t take themselves too seriously: Get serious about infusing play into your organization. Not forced cheesy play. Support playing around with ideas even if it seems crazy at first. Support and commend people that bring humour and playfulness to the workplace. Why? Because play builds trust and bonds which leads to openness to new possibilities and better collaborative problem solving- conditions for innovation.
  6. Create environments that foster creative collisions and collaborative problem solving: Creative spaces for thinking differently and getting good ideas out of people’s heads helps to foster innovation. Creative organizations have spaces for collaborating, concentrating and bumping into each other unexpectedly. Creative cultures design these spaces with employees and encourage the weird and thought provoking because it helps people to get ‘jarred’ out of what they are used to and see fresh possibilities.
  7. George Lois on the creative actKeep asking why and exploring what people you serve really need: Creative cultures encourage everyone, especially those who have been around a long time to question assumptions. Unchecked assumptions keep organizations from innovating. From time to time you should steward explorations to wonder together. Wonder about things like, why is our service or product important? What is the real value we offer? Are we designing solutions that have real value for people’s lives? Are we solving real problems? Have we developed the service with the people that will use it? Is the service or product what people really want and need? Are we honest about what’s working and not working? What are we not noticing or paying attention to?
  8. Embrace Complexity: Develop values and practices where people in your organizational culture get better at the mind-set that embraces complexity. The pace of change in our times is rapid- what works today might not work tomorrow. So many systems are shifting and no one can predict the future. In practice, a culture that embraces complexity means people who make friends with uncertainty, avoid jumping to conclusions too quickly, people who question assumptions and who collaboratively look to uncover root causes of complex issues.

Tom Peters quote on Innovation and being weirdIf all else fails in your innovation efforts, just do what innovation guru Tom Peters says…


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