Blog Aug 2016

Innovation culture

I recently met a guy at a party who used to work for MI5. Not a Tom Cruise film, that is, though similar: the British internal security division. Spies! How exciting!

I recently met a guy at a party who used to work for MI5. Not a Tom Cruise film, that is, though similar: the British internal security division. Spies! How exciting!

As it turned out of course, he couldn’t tell me anything about what he used to do. But he enthusiastically answered my question about what the culture there was like. Smart people working together in tight teams on specific projects. Systematic, careful, but often seeking new methods and new resources. Often changing roles, and thinking of it as a long-term home not just a job.

I couldn’t help smiling, “it’s the same where I work” I said. Innovation and spy work have a lot in common. By the way, yes, we do keep stuff secret and no, we don’t kill people or do crazy stunts (aside from Greg, who juggles fire and blew his own eardrum out with a bullwhip. Legend.)

If you’re wondering “how can I create an innovation culture?”, it’s worth remembering first that like any evolving system, culture generally grows to reflect its primary function. And this is often how the leader or founder believes they should function. This might be about efficiency, control, competition, collaboration, consistency or any number of other objectives. An innovation culture is going to amplify some benefits, and tune down others. The autonomy we have in our culture would drive many managers nuts. So, first work out the tensions between an innovation culture and your designed culture.

And generally it takes a certain type of person to want to be a spy or an innovator. Relentlessly curious, able to switch perspectives quickly and to navigate ambiguity comfortably. Maybe not a maverick like “Bond, James Bond”, but having a healthy skepticism for the received wisdom, the status quo.

Of course, your question was probably more precisely “how can I create a more innovative culture?” And one answer is to bring together more of the people I just described, and give them some freedom and tools to do things their way.

And by “tools” I mostly mean processes. Innovation is not rocket science – sometimes it’s simply about better toilet tissue – nor is it about crazy hunches. Good innovators balance creativity with rigorous systematic approaches and careful analysis. And they rarely jump to intuitive answers: rather perversely, they often keep coming back to redefine the problem they were asked to solve, until they really know what the blockage point is about. When we are asked to train our client teams to be more innovative, we teach some simple approaches that work really well for us.

Innovation is not a mindset that’s easy to just switch on for an hour or a day, so be careful of asking people to do that – for example by just dropping them into a brainstorm and saying “go!” That’s why “innovation culture” is the right question to think about instead of just “innovation”.

So have I answered your question? Just a little bit? Or were you just thinking “what kind of parties does he go to anyway?”


Written by: G

I’m a physicist and co-founder of Innovia, and I’ve been inspired and educated by smart clients and colleagues for over 30 years. I can’t stop innovating, especially at home, and I drive my family nuts.