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Is a “Culture of Innovation” just bulls**t?


Is a “Culture of Innovation” just bulls**t?

I admit, I have almost as big a problem with the platitude “Culture of Innovation” as I do with “Failing Fast.”

It’s a collision of ambiguities. Ask 20 people what they think organizational culture is, and you’ll get back 20 different answers (at least). Ask them what innovation is, and you’ll end up with Justice Potter Stewart’s take on pornography—"I know it when I see it.”

There’s agreement, head nodding, and lip service given to the need for a “Culture of Innovation”—but people deeply disagree on what it actually means.

So, I embarked on a foolhardy Googling, reading, parsing, pondering snipe hunt for a definitive meaning. Which only confirmed my confusion. One article even recommended organizations “spend several months” studying and defining innovation, which sounds like the antithesis of Culture of Innovation to me.

As a literary review of sorts, let’s take the definition of culture from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

“The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.”

Starting with the social behaviors—the way we act with one another—I removed all the consultant-speak from the vast bloat of articles, boiled that down, and came up with behavioral buckets that were consistently repeated:

  • Be respectful

  • Be inclusive

  • Be open to learning

  • Trust one another

  • Reward the behavior you want from others

  • Make good choices and understand the consequence of your actions

Wait a minute. What if I add, “Don’t run in the classroom”? You get where I’m going. These behaviors describe how to be a healthy, well-adjusted, and functional group of humans. These behavioral norms have nothing, yet absolutely everything, to do with innovation.

Insight #1

The better you are at those six behaviors, the better you’ll be at innovating. Or pretty much anything else. The foundation of having a Culture of Innovation, is to have a good culture. If you haven’t got that, stop reading and go fix it. Piling innovation on top isn’t going to help anything.

Moving on to the next part of the OED’s culture definition: customs. The processes, systems, and things that people actually do to innovate.

Once again, I’ll try to distill my readings down to simple English (as I’m both simple and English):

  • Have a strategic intent. Tie innovation back to your organization’s why (your purpose in the world)—and keep tying it back. If it doesn’t fit, make a decision on the idea, your strategy, or your purpose. Something’s gotta give.

  • Find the true nature of a challenge, customer pain, or job to be done—the root why of the problem. Then keep on clarifying.

  • Generate lots of bold hypotheses, prioritize and test those with the highest option value first. Then keep on testing.

  • Try to disprove your hypothesis as fast as you can, continually asking these four questions:

  1. “Is it wanted?”

  2. “Can we do it?”

  3. “Is it worth it?”

  4. and “How might we know?”

Admittedly, that’s quite a bit to unpack—but if you have the discipline and processes in place to perform them routinely you’ll bring a portfolio of solutions to market that you should be doing, and that address real challenges, are wanted, can be made, and are worth doing.

Insight #2

Innovation is systematic, in the same way that procurement, product development, and financials are systematic. You can, and should, operationalize your Cultural Customs of Innovation—otherwise you’re just waiting for lightning to strike.

Which takes us to the final part of the OED’s definition of culture—ideas. This is where it starts to get a little tricky… but I’ve boiled the collective wisdom down to one (not particularly useful) line: Deploy the right people, to do the right things, at the right time, with the right time.

Insight #3

Innovation needs ideas, and ideas come from people. An organizational structure must be in place that supports ideas being created, developed, and deployed—and that might be the hardest and most disruptive step of all in creating a Culture of Innovation, as it involves deconstructing, amongst other things, hierarchies, compensation, titles, hiring, benefits, budgeting, program planning, etc. Those are the kind of actions that require approval from the C-suite, and maybe even the Board. Yes and… they are in place to keep you operating in the here-and-now. Talk about tension. 

So. Do I think that “Culture of Innovation” is a bunch of B.S.?

Nope. But a lot of the stuff that floats around it is.

If you are serious about fostering a “Culture of Innovation,” and not merely promulgating a glib platitude, you’ve got to execute on all three aspects of culture—as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary:

  • Behavior: How we act with one another.

  • Customs: The tools, processes, and practices we use to get things done.

  • Ideas: Organizational structures that support human ingenuity.

At Solve Next we focus our energy on the customs. We’ve created language, frameworks, and tools that you can use to get started. Check them out via our training, software, and services.

You can also get our epic book on Amazon:  Think Wrong: How to conquer the status quo and do work that matters




Welcome to Campando Maryknoll

Original art: Tucker Nichols Hack: Tena Watts (Think Wrong Master Class grad)

Original art: Tucker Nichols
Hack: Tena Watts (Think Wrong Master Class grad)

A report from Eugene Shirley, a recently certified Wrong Thinker from last week’s Think Wrong Master Class.

I had a great meeting today with our favorite nuns and we’re confirmed for Campando, Jan. 20, 21 and 22 at the Maryknoll Sisters compound in Monrovia, at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. (bears included). They will provide food and lodging, targeting LA County millennial leaders from social justice and environmental communities who feel in need of rejuvenation (a small group at first, to experiment). We will Make Stuff and Bet Small—prototyping a program they hope to replicate multiple times throughout the year.

I took the Make Stuff: Name It Poster (see photo with three of the sisters pictured), used it to catch them up on our ideas from last week, and then they took it from there. I took along two extra blank posters and they wanted me to leave them so they could think wrong on their own.  

Eugene lead the sisters in the Make Stuff: Name It Drill

Eugene lead the sisters in the Make Stuff: Name It Drill

They loved the name of Campando, only suggesting we call this specific event “Campando Maryknoll” in order to make it their own. One sister in particular loved “Pandonista.” She had just returned from El Paso helping to settle a recent influx of emigres from Mexico who have aimed to get back across the border and with their families before the presidency changes (these nuns are fierce). “Just live it” seemed to them exactly right as a tagline. Of course, everyone LOVED the hack of Tucker Nichol's wonderful image of the Pando trees.  

The sisters started working on the program. They were very focused on reflection and rejuvenation. They thought the idea of this being an oasis of reflection—an idea inspired by the Get Out: That's Odd Drill (Virgin Tub) seemed exactly right. The sisters suggested we start on Friday night with a wine and beer Happy Hour, and end the weekend with a hike in the mountains and brunch at a waterfall with a ritual focused on giving Pandonistas strength for their social justice and environmental missions. The sisters have served in the most dangerous places all over the world and will share their stories on Saturday. We’ll use the Think Wrong Lab to design the program.

They brilliantly suggested this be declared a cellphone-free zone (I remember seeing photos of Tucker’s images around FB on that) and that Pandonistas place their cellphones in a box on a common table during orientation on Friday night. They can give their significant others the convent’s switchboard number in case of emergency. I absolutely fell in love with this idea. 

Eugene B. Shirley, Jr. is founding president and CEO of Pando Populus and a long-time entrepreneur. For twenty-five years, he produced prime-time programming for PBS and some 30 countries under Pacem Productions. He was founding CEO of a text analytics firm.  He is a former Jennings Randolph Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Sign up for the next Think Wrong Master Class here.

Learn, apply, and master Solve Next’s radical problem-solving system to reliably produce surprising, ingenious, and sometimes magical solutions to your most wicked questions and opportunities.



Precedents don’t offer the potential for thinking wrong

Think Wrong McWrongsey

Here’s an industry secret worth billions. Consultants like to use the term “best practice” to describe what the rest of us would call a precedent—just a method that has worked, before, somewhere else.

This isn't to say best practices are useless. Precedence is great when you understand the challenge you’re facing and want to repeat a solution—say, when you want to select brakes for a train (or brakes for anything, really) or when choosing an open heart surgeon. But if you’re trying to outpace competition, solve a long-term problem that doesn't seem to go away, or tackle a challenge you’ve never seen before...applying precedent is not so helpful. Precedence is not disruption, and is not meant to be.

But too often, consultants dress up plain precedence and offer it as an ingenious driver of organizational change—a glaringly obvious contradiction. Most of the time, there’s nothing better about a “best” practice, and you could say that consultants have found a clever way of selling old rope for new prices.

The truth is, these precedents don’t offer the potential for ingenious ideas. They only replicate the past.  So, if you want to unlock new ideas—stop thinking right, and start thinking wrong.


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I Have a Green Watch


This post is courtesy of Solve Next co-founder, Mike Burn 

Why fit in when you were born to stand out?―Dr. Seuss

“Your glasses are too funky, your shirts are too loud and your watch is too green. If you want to succeed here you should try ‘mirroring’ the executives, you’ll be a VP in a year."

This sage, enlightening, and simultaneously horrific statement was given to me once as well-meaning career advice. My advisor even got more specific, suggesting I go to Brooks Brothers and spend $300 at the sale rack. The most tragic aspect of this advice? It was absolutely spot on.

Obviously I didn’t go off and do it; it sounded more like part of a sick and twisted sociological experiment than career advice.

But what is so threatening about a green watch?

I am genuinely amazed by the number of people who comment on my watch—it’s started many a conversation. The comments fall into three categories:

• observational - “You have a green watch.” • contemptuous - “You have a green watch?” • aspirational - “You can have a green watch!”

I’m not raising the stereotyping associated with this watchism to a level of hateful prejudice here—but it does seem to be an effective technique for identifying close mindedness. Stereotyping and closed mindedness being symptoms of groupthink, and its associated desire for conformity. The next stage of this cycle is self-censorship, with the peer pressure asserted against deviant watch-wearing behavior bringing about the switch to a more consensus-driven timepiece. A tried-and-true, gold, with a brown leather strap edition perhaps?

Once the pattern of morality, peer pressure and group belief in what is right and appropriate is in place, the status quo and uniformity get continually reinforced. The guards are in place to prevent both outside and internal dissent.

The drift towards homogeneity starts. The watch, the blue shirt, the pleated khakis and the shiny slip-on shoes with brass ended tassels, then the Brooks Brothers sales rack, and the mirroring, and the promotion, the title, the success. And once you’ve made it, don’t rock the boat, don’t speak out, don’t stand up, just go along to get along, we all agree, we’re all on the same page, we know how to do this, everything is just fine as it is—and don’t let the crazy dude with the green watch in.

Of course, this is not just about watches—this is about ideas and thinking wrong. And incidentally...the green watch at the top of this post belongs to another Solve Next collaborator, Marty Butler. Coincidence?

Solve Next is on the lookout for places where green watches are challenging the status quo. Green watch = thinking wrong. Check it out here.

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