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How to build an innovation culture

Posted by: Helen Walters on June 12, 2009

How to embed innovation in an organization must be one of the most discussed, little agreed-upon topics of our time. This week, it was the topic of a panel event at the Incentive 2 Innovate conference, held at the United Nations and organized by Peter Diamandis and his X-Prize crew. Chaired by InnoCentive’s Dwayne Spradlin, the heavyweight panel featured Neil Blakeseley, VP of Strategy Marketing and Propositions at British Telecom, former Halliburton CEO John W Gibson, Cisco SVP for Emerging Technologies, Marthin de Beer and author and former Cisco-er, Judy Estrin.

In my opinion, Gibson, now CEO at Paradigm, put his finger firmly on the issue at hand. “I’ve fired nearly everyone, rehired and had exactly the same company,” he said. In other words, fostering innovation is about the way you do business as much as who does your business for you. Recreate the same uncreative processes and you’ll have the same uncreative business.

There were no “aha”, breakthrough moments of clarity here. Instead, conference attendees came up with some perfectly reasonable suggestions of encouraging cross-department collaboration or creating internal networks for ideas. What came out loud and clear is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this critical issue.

I caught up with Spradlin after the panel to discuss the topic further and talk about Spradlin’s own pithy assessment, that “culture eats strategy for lunch.” Listen to the podcast here (with apologies for the sound quality — I thought sneaking outside of the UN to find a quiet spot was a brilliant idea… until the planes started whizzing overhead.)

Reader Comments

Bruce Temkin

June 15, 2009 10:12 PM

In my eBook called "The Six Laws Of Customer Experience," I discuss how employees do what is measured, incented, and celebrated. So you can hire and fire everybody, but if you don't change what is measured, incented, and celebrated then you will get the same results. Culture is very persistent.

To change culture, you'll need to address each of these "6 Cs:"

1. Clear beliefs
2. Constance communications
3. Collective celebrations
4. Compelling stories
5. Commmitment to employees
6. Consistent tradeoffs

Read more about this on my blog "Customer Experience Matters" (

S. Dan Zimmerman

June 21, 2009 9:25 AM

With our focus on innovation, perhaps we should have a better understanding of innovation (besides we know it when we see it)...

Refined definition of Innovation:

Incremental Innovation:
Increasing Customer value-add of an existing service or product.

Increasing the energy efficiency of existing product by improving design.

Exponential Innovation:
Developing / Implementing New service, product, or business.


S. Dan Zimmerman

Peter Evans-Greenwood

November 4, 2009 1:10 AM


Isn't 'exponential innovation' just 'incremental innovation' where we haven't been away of the intervening steps?

The iPod (and iTunes) isn't the result of some brilliant thought, carefully tended and raised in the labs before being released to a receptive public. It was a incremental development of earlier music players (both Apple's and those from other companies) that finally managed to get the majority of features right.

Incrementally increasing the energy efficiency of an existing product might just tip it from an incremental innovation, into an exponential one.



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What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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