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The idea that an open culture can be engineered or that cultural change can be outsourced is tempting. So tempting, in fact, that many organizations – large and small, for and not for profit – will at one point find themselves (mis)spending a great deal of time, resources and emotions on trying to make it, break it or maintain it. As Michael Watkins puts it in his HBR article: “If you want to provoke a vigorous debate, start a conversation on organizational culture”.

Culture, however, is not a self-assembling bridge, an Alessi bird kettle, or a secret stain removing formula. It cannot be cramped into Excel, left to the coders (don’t get me wrong, code can be powerful), addressed with a Stage-Gate approach, or optimised with CRM software. Matter-of-factly speaking, culture is much too nuanced and subtle for that. Culture is also intangible. And it’s in constant motion.

“A company’s culture is its basic personality, the essence of how its people interact and work”. That’s one view I endorse. But there are others too. Culture is a “pattern of shared values and beliefs that help individuals understand organizational functioning”. Also true. My favourite analogy though is culture as “social glue”; culture as the element that binds individuals, creates an identity and ultimately acts as a lever for economic growth.

So how do you go about changing/evolving the identity of an organization? And how do you manage the effectiveness of this change?

To answer that, I’ve prepared three perspectives for you. Each is in itself a little guide to orchestrating an (open) innovation culture, complete with a simple set of questions innovation managers can ask themselves in the process.

1. Innovation orientation for an open culture

One way to assess whether your culture is geared for innovation is to check its innovation orientation. The term comes from academia and the rationale is as follows: a company’s long-term survival is not based on one single innovation, a single market or a type of learning; instead, it is based on an overarching knowledge structure called “innovation orientation".

This orientation is none other than "a set of understandings about innovation built into the fabric of a firm's knowledge structure". This understanding about innovation is executed on differently, of course. This is how differences appear.

Does your organization have an innovation-oriented approach? To find out, see whether the following set of features are present in the institution/organization you work for. 1 means they are totally absent and 7 means they are fully present.

  • Risk taking
  • Accepting failure
  • Rewarding a job well done
  • Identifying obstacles
  • Making the most of the experience, skills and abilities of employees
  • Knowledge sharing
  • Searching for, detecting, obtaining and disseminating information at an in-house level
  • Exchanging and coming up with ideas
  • Fostering creativity
  • Fostering teamwork

Further reading:

Ana Muñoz-van den Eynde, Maria Cornejo-Cañamares, Irene Diaz-Garcia and Emilio Muñoz's – "Measuring Innovation Culture: Development and Validation of a Multidimensional Questionnaire" (Link)

2. Leadership capabilities for open culture creation 

While an open culture cannot be engineered per se, it can certainly be orchestrated. This orchestration process is typically in the hands of higher management, making their familiarity (and sometimes comfort) with the topic extremely important. At the end of the day, it is leaders that can guide an organization from a closed to an open innovation (OI) model. But not everyone is fit for the job.

To be able to tell whether your current leadership helps or hinders open innovation in your organization, start with this simple checklist:

  • Our OI leaders have helped employees get on board by creating and promoting a shared vision of OI;
  • Our OI leaders have reassured employees that OI is here to stay
  • Our OI leaders have helped reshape the larger definition of success within the firm
  • Our OI leaders have contributed to internal OI capability building

Further reading:

Diana Rus, Barbara Wisse and Eric F. Rietzschel – “An open invitation to open innovation: Guidelines for the leadership of open innovation processes” (Link1, Link2)

Svenja Paul, Nadine Roijakkers and Letizia Mortara – “How Do Human Resource Practices Strengthen Open Innovation?” (Link)

3. Using the The Rainforest Scorecard

There are also systematic ways of measuring and building culture at scale and the Rainforest Scorecard is one such example. Its framework behind it draws on insights from complex systems theory, cognitive and behavioural sciences, evolutionary biology, legal studies, design thinking, political economy, and macrosociology, while the tool in itself can inform decision-making and help craft an effective growth strategy.

According to the scorecard, indications of a healthy culture for innovation can be summarized by a number of statements. These statements are:

  • Trust is an important cultural element and is widespread and easily created;
  • People think in terms of “positive-sum” or “win-win” situations and not “zero-sum” or “I win only if you lose”;
  • Failure is not viewed in a negative light;
  • Calculated risk taking is viewed positively;
  • People are often willing to help without expectation of immediate return;
  • People are encouraged to dream and “think big”.

With how many items do you agree and to what extent?

Further reading:

Henry Doss and Alistar Brett – “The Rainforest Scorecard – A Practical Framework for Growing Innovation Potential” (Link)

If you’ve stayed with me so far, why not check what some of my fellow bloggers have published on the topic of culture? For example, Stefan Lindegaard’s piece on having a little less conversation and a bit more execution. Or Colin Nelson’s piece on Swisslog and the importance of understanding how corporate innovation unfolds (hint: it’s all about people and their attitudes towards innovation).

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