The Five Culture of Innovation Questions you’ve Always Wanted to Ask

By Raphael Louis Vitón | Feb 15, 2018

In this Conscious Conversations episode, Raphael Vitón and Tim Kuppler discuss five questions about creating a Culture of Innovation. Raff and Tim recently hosted a webinar on How to build a culture of innovation and in this episode, we will dive a little deeper into some of the aspects of culture change and how it relates to innovation.

Below you can listen to the full conversation

Or you can skip ahead to any of the questions.

Why should an organization be interested in the connection between innovation and culture?

Do we really need a quantitative assessment to tell us we are not innovative?

How does innovation fit into performance improvement?

What would an innovation culture journey look like?

How do I get started with my team?


Barbie: Welcome to the Conscious Conversation series. This is episode one and today I’m speaking with Raphael Viton Axialent’s Global Transformation Lead as well as Tim Kuppler Director of Culture and Organization Development at Human Synergistics. Raff and Tim recently hosted a webinar on how to build a cultural of innovation. In this episode, we will dive a little deeper into some of the aspects of culture change and how it relates to innovation.

Why should an organization be interested in the connection between innovation and culture?

Raff:   Why should they be interested in the connection? I’ll start from saying I’m not saying they should or not. There’s some aspect of if they are investing in building a competency in innovation for one of two reasons. Typically, if they’re investing in building innovation muscles and a culture that is stronger in innovation it’s usually because they’re either behind the curve in a slow growth industry, in a slow growth position in the market where they need to quickly catch up and adapt. Or they’re in a position of being a high growth company, high velocity company and they’re trying to maintain this momentum, they’re trying to maintain the pace of innovation, and the speed with which they adapt and lead the market. Hitting both of those two considerations they are investing heavily in both culture and in innovation.

On the way they relate to each other, using the metaphor of seeds and soil. How ready the soil and how fertile the soil is, is the big determining factor as to whether the seeds of innovation will stick, and grow, and prosper or not. Culture is the soil that the seeds of innovation have to be planted in. Those two scenarios I gave you before of the slow growth versus high velocity company, those two organizations are in a position where they’re now investing in adaptation and their strategy is dependent on how quickly they adapt.

Tim: Culture and innovation are totally linked by definition. Every organization has a culture, some of them are naturally adaptive and people aren’t thinking about all the cultural challenges, and obstacles, and frustrations with behavior that might be holding things back. In other organizations that are naturally adaptive, we’d say they have a constructive culture, they can just keep ahead of the competition so to speak. They’re not trying to keep up with anyone, they’re not trying to adapt to their competition. They have a drive to excel, to support their mission or purpose.

Raff:  If I’m a company, if I’m investing lots of budget, lots of energy, lots of human resources towards being more innovative I want to ensure a strong return on that investment. If I do it without paying attention to culture I am guaranteeing the opposite of a high return on that investment. It’s very shortsighted to think we can just do things that make us more innovating in the short term and think we’re going to get the end result we want for business. A lot of our approach to this is making sure that those investments in innovation are protected and de-risked, if you will, so that it’s a smart investment.

Barbie: Do we really need an assessment to tell us we are not innovative?

Tim: The key thing with that is that it’s not about determining if you are innovative or not innovating. It’s to understand it better. And to understand how culture’s helping your innovations efforts and how it is holding it back. As I mentioned before, it’s always both. There’s always going to have to be dialogue and groups and work in groups to make things happen. What we’re advocating is combine those group efforts with a validated reliable survey related to culture, so we can understand and get a language and measurement around specifically how culture’s helping our innovation efforts and how it’s holding us back. When you’ve got that, the group work, the teamwork, and you’ve got some new language and measurement around that, your same strategies and plans can be taken to another level because you’re building some new understanding and language you didn’t have before.

Culture surveys are not about let’s do it, let’s action plan a few things and move on. Culture surveys are all about being strategic and even most so called culture surveys as we talked about are more about the work climate systems, structures, processes and not the invisible organization and the unwritten rules. Because when you do that type of a survey, it is strategic. And now let’s look at our strategy, and our top priorities, and we’ve got a new lens that we didn’t have before. Most people would think about an assessment and all the satisfaction surveys and engagement surveys and think that’s culture, and as we talked about them in the webinar, that’s not culture. We’ve got to get to the underlying norms, the unwritten rules, these thoughts that are running through our heads because if people aren’t speaking up in meetings, if people aren’t raising the challenges and problems that need to be overcome for an innovation to be successful and reach the market effectively, then we’re going to run into roadblocks later that cost money and that might undermine the whole efforts.

Barbie: How does innovation fit into performance improvement?

Tim: Innovation applies to performance, particularly when we talk about well, why do we want to innovate? What results do we want to achieve? Innovation’s linked to performance, and because innovation and culture are by definition totally intertwined, that’s why we’ve got to understand them both to really optimize performance and accelerate results.

Raff: It’s a bit of acknowledging that most of us, and most companies, are not really big at connecting the dots, in terms of seeing where the business benefits come from, in terms of individuals, teams, and the organization. A lot of mindsets, behaviors, and the interactions between people who have upgraded their mindsets and their behaviors, and therefore their interaction.

And being able to connect the dots from a competency like innovation and directly linking it to performance improvement, in whatever domain is important to the company.

Tim: the first few times through, where we are keeping behavior and culture in mind, that’s the hardest. Then, when you’ve got a language around this and you’re able to apply it to more improvement efforts, more performance priorities, but faster and more effectively each time because now we’ve got the language, the measurement and the experience in our organization of how to do this and deliver an outcome.

Raff: Innovation is in service of our performance improvement if it’s deployed appropriately, with focus, in the context … without going too deep into it, in the context of an innovation portfolio, so it’s pointed towards the areas that deliver the appropriate value for the organization based on the business strategy, not random.

Barbie: What would an innovation culture journey look like?

Raff:  It’s definitely a series of phases, a series of steps. The idea of how do we sequentially build the journey, the journey, it’s not project. The important thing is to distinguish that we’re not in the culture project business. It’s a journey because it’s understanding the lifestyle aspects of it, the bigger systems aspects of it.

Tim:  One side is the transformation. Transformation of people, mindsets. Leadership and management development, coaching, that’s got to be there. The other side, the other practical, engaging the organization differently, to deliver innovation, but with some different behavior, maybe some different systems, and all of that. You can get a lot of progress on that engagement approach. People can think, “We’re delivering some more results,” but it will peter out. You’ll go back to your old way of thinking if there’s not the leader and management development, the coaching, the mindset shifting, going on.

There’s a few principles in play, there, where, that prototype, the project, it’s got to be meaningful. It’s got to connected to one of the most critical performance or mission priorities of the organization, something related to customer experience, new products, new services, whatever it might be, and we’re proving that we can accelerate the things and we can move faster by using a more inclusive and transparent approach.

Raff: We’re being inclusive here. We, the culture of the company, the team working in this new way-

Tim: And the leadership.

Raff: And leadership, together, can deliver better results when we work out of this ideal environment, this ideal culture, this innovative culture. Look what it does.

Tim: Exactly. There’s a formula that has to be there. There’s got to be some new behavior. There’s got to be results at the end of that prototype, and along the way. People have to like it. This is what Edgar Schein says. If they hate the process and this prototype sucks, we’re not spread it beyond that.

What’s missed often is there’s got to be learning. We’ve got to say, as a team, “What works with this first prototype or business priority we focused on in a new way, and what didn’t?” Now, as we go to the next phase, what are we going to continue or expand and what do we need to change. Again, we learned something about our culture, how we deliver innovation and results.

The first time through is the hardest to create the roadmap, to start working on the mindset shift but we then regroup, “What did we learn from this first prototype, this initial work? Where did we deliver results?” The most results we delivered, the faster that we can move and expand. The biggest thing that undermines an innovation journey, a culture journey, is quite honestly the lack of management commitment and curiosity to really understand what’s getting in the way.

It’s not the lack of accountability, it’s not having the wrong people, in most cases.

Raff:  Yeah, yeah.

Tim: It’s the lack of a disciplined inclusive approach where we’re curious, we’re listening, we’re understanding what’s getting in the way, and they we’re listening, involving, about what we defined to overcome those problems and obstacles. We’re not defining that at the leadership team and rolling it out on the organization. We got really unique ways and we build those inclusive ways into our operating model.

Leaders, when they do this once, they’re like, “Oh, my gosh. Now we got to apply it over here, and over here, and over there.” One of my greatest mentors said that an effective culture is one where you act on what you know. You’ve been educated. You’ve been trained. You’ve learned certain things. If the thoughts running through your head is, “I can’t raise this idea. What would my boss think?”, we’re screwed. It’s a problem.

We want that environment where we’re acting on what we know, we’re offering up our best to the team. That can be created. That can be built. That can be grown and expanded, even in the greatest organization out there. An innovation culture journey’s all about learning and results. What it feels like to everyone involved is freedom.

Raff: Feels like freedom. Nice. The tracks are alignment, transformation, and execution, intertwined and iterated with different levels of prototypes.

Barbie: How do I get started with my team?

Tim: You can get started with that quick start approach in any division, location, department, whatever it might be. And whether it’s Axialent or some other expert or guide that you want, get some outside help because again you’re swimming in the water. The key is taking action at whatever level or group you’re in but these new techniques, information about your own culture is so powerful that once you learn about your own culture, once you learn about how these changed fundamentals work, you feel compelled.

Raff: Something else you said made me think about the starting small approach. Kind of the not thinking that we have to have everybody in agreement or alignment around, or onboard with culture change from the beginning.

Tim: Right.

Raff:  The idea that starting small is with a team and more will come when the results show up.

Tim: Right. My point was you don’t need to understand the entire journey to get it started. And that being able to scope it and say we’ll focus on this critical customer experience, project or whatever it might be it makes people more comfortable. The guards and the fear maybe come down. Okay, we’re focusing it here. But once you get started, then you start getting results. This is not you do an assessment and then we start engaging you. Nope, right up front what’s the purpose of this, what’s really working in our organization in that critical area, what’s kind of holding us back and then we educate. We educate. Talk about what this subject is. Culture, innovation, mindset, whatever it might be so there can be a real conversation about what are we targeting here and get people onboard upfront because it’s so common sense.

Yes, no, we want people to not say what’s on their mind in meetings and we want our innovation efforts to be undermined because things come out later and we don’t collaborate, change our minds. Of course they’re not going to say that. But when they’re engaged with care up front and feel part of the process it becomes easier to go deeper and as we get more personal, as we get into work assessments and individual assessments potentially we’ve got to find out in time we’ve got some credibility behind the methodology and the help, genuine help that’s provided.

Raff: We all know whatever language, culture, eats strategy for breakfast, for lunch there, whatever culture eats everything. But they don’t know what the leverage is to change it. They’re not experts at it. We all know leadership effectiveness drives results. They all know team effectiveness drives better results. And we’re connecting all three of those levels in the context of business, in the context of the day job and giving them the highest leverage aspects to work with, to quickly get a change in culture, towards the culture they believe will be more effective in fulfilling the purpose within the business priority.

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