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Is innovation a product of culture more than any other factor?

Posted by: Reena Jana on January 12, 2008

I just read the “from the editor” page in the current (January/February 2008) MIT Technology Review, by Jason Pontin—and enjoyed it. He began by discussing the so-called “innovation economy,” went on to offer a selection of definitions for the I-word, (from The Economist and Richard Lyons, chief learning officer at Goldman Sachs)—and, as we’ve also done—criticized these definitions for their slight whiffs of management-consulting-speak. The consensus, it seems, including Pontin’s definition — which includes what the I-word is NOT (not invention, not scientific discovery) — is that innovation must create value. (Pontin writes that “Innovation disrupts our existing way of doing business or creates entirely new ways of doing things.”)

He goes on to suggest that “innovation seems to be more the product of culture and methodology. The culture of innovation tolerates failure and smiles upon creativity. But such a culture is not enough in itself; successful inovation also pitilessly rejects bad ideas when their promise has been exhausted and efficiently executes the development and commercialization of the best ideas.”

I enjoyed reading Pontin’s essay, and appreciated his consideration of the role that culture plays in the innovation process. And it makes me wonder: how do companies create cultures of innovation? Do they evolve organically, or can they be replicated? It’s not as easy as buying a foosball table. Or providing free massages and food. Is it as simple as redesigning a workplace? Or should companies really focus on the personalities and social networks of their potential hires to build cultures of innovation?

Reader Comments


January 15, 2008 3:45 PM

For innovative minds to flourish people must be free to think and create. People need to be spurred on to pursue innovation in a way that suits their particular organization. Principles of innovation are great but strict cookie cutter methods will do more harm than good. If the people never break out of their limited thinking innovation will never happen...I like what you sais, "The culture of innovation tolerates failure and smiles upon creativity." I believe when that kind of attitude is adopted by the leaders the results will be limitless.

Geoff Waite

January 16, 2008 5:04 PM

How do companies create cultures of innovation? The good news is that it can, and is being, done - deliberately and methodically - by many companies. Frameworks like "SPROC" (Strategy, Process, Resource, Organization, Culture) exist to diagnose and change organizations to become more innovative.

One interesting way to look at culture is that it can be either top-down (leadership) driven or bottom-up (a consequence of organizational design). In my experience, it tends to be a combination of both, but one mechanism dominates, or leads, the creation of culture. The secret to success is to recognize which mechanism leads and then to make the other fully supportive. Try designing an innovative organization without taking into account a charismatic, innovative, CEO (top-down model)and it fails. Similarly to build a bottom up organization under a more operations-oriented CEO without his or her buy-in will fail.

As for a definition: it's amazing how hard this consensus is to reach. We use a simple one: "Creating value from creativity".

One point that Pontin's essay seems to overlook is that there are different flavors of innovation - not all innovation needs to be groundbreaking, or breakthrough - indeed, much isn't. This very topic will be on the agenda at the upcoming PDMA Front End of Innovation conference.

Geoff Waite, Sagentia. Boston.


January 21, 2008 8:37 AM

Thanks for your review of Pontin's essay. I hadn't heard about it and will now track it down to read it myself. I think creating a culture of innovation rests largely on the shoulders of the CEO and his or her ability to structure incentives that reward creative thinking. Fear of failure, and the repercussions that await those who take risks and lose, serve as the ultimate road block to creating a spirit of innovation in companies. I see that scenario play out every day at my job, and try as several of us may to inspire people to be creative, their main concern is always trying something new, failing, and then losing their job for it.

Tech Girl

January 23, 2008 1:55 PM

I agree, we all need to break away from the cookie cutter mold we are use to witnessing every day. But how? I have heard of a few Universities (Michigan & Stanford) actually training inovation fellows. Imagine, getting paid to collaborate with MBA's, MD's and engineers, as you develop new ideas and products.

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