Show me the culture!

Culture is directly linked to the rate and quality of innovation in any society or organisation.

If you don't believe this, think about the pervasive culture of the place you live.

  • Is it a free, liberal and open society?
  • Or a conservative and risk averse one?
  • How readily are new ideas developed and accepted?
  • How accepting of failure are your peers?
  • Are you or others willing to take a risk?
  • Are people that risk and fail ostracised?
  • Are they regarded as losers?

These questions should be easily answered within your local community, your businesses or organisations.

It is an indisputable fact that democratic societies are more innovative than closed, hierarchical and conformist societies. If we take a look at the top 10 innovative countries according to the Global Innovation Index - we will note that nearly all are countries that allow freedom of speech, that are democratic and provide low cost access to education.

Leading Innovative Countries according to the Global Innovation Index

  1. Switzerland
  2. United Kingdom
  3. Sweden
  4. Finland
  5. Netherlands
  6. USA
  7. Singapore
  8. Denmark
  9. Luxembourg
  10. Hong Kong (China) 

I think this fact is very important as cultural rules will dictate the extent to which a population or a group of people who produce original new ideas leading to new value creation and sometimes game changing innovations.

Schumpeter believed that you don't get innovation unless you combine two vital ingredients.

Creativity x risk = innovation.

So a culture that allows risk and encourages creativity will be more innovative than a culture that does not. Obvious statement? Maybe, but this kind of 'obvious' thing goes unnoticed when you are in the middle of your working life, doing business and abiding by the rules unconsciously or consciously.

Another obvious statement to make is that unwritten or not, rules shape behaviour. To think humans will always make individual decisions, outside of the status quo, enjoying being outside the boundaries of normality is a misnomer. To the contrary, humans crave conformity and to some extent we need this in order for anarchy to not prevail.

As Berkun says, in order to be innovative and entrepreneurial, one risks his or her social status. Watch the awesome film Jerry Maguire to see cultural social judgement played out brilliantly as Jerry is given the cold shoulder by his peers and the establishment, simply by thinking and doing something differently. Entrepreneurs will take that risk and in so doing, they break the mold.

An over structured society which reinforces a regimented hierarchy and the need to socially conform does not result in exciting innovation. This society might be exceptional at process, efficiency and mass production but it is less likely to possess the necessary dynamics to create game changing innovation.

Society, much like a business culture means the many conform to the behaviours of the elite. Mavericks don't necessarily fit into this unless tolerated or valued by their leadership.

So leadership style and its defining culture is tremendously important.

Outliers, a book by Malcolm Gladwell, takes an alternative view on the story of success. (An outlier is a statistical abnormality, something that is not easily explained).

One of the key chapters looks at the tragic Air Korea crash which was caused by cultural over-deference to authority.  Korean culture dictated that the rules of communication must respect those who hold senior positions and they therefore cannot be challenged. These social rules disabled the co pilot from being able to directly question the Captains direction and the poor decisions that he was making. This is in stark contradiction to the supposed role of the co-pilot, which is to act as a check and balance ensuring safety and optimum performance.

Despite knowing the plane was heading for disaster, due to a deeply held cultural protocol, he did not directly inform the pilot, his senior, that the plane was heading towards a hillside. Instead he uses indirect language, dropping hints to the exhausted Captain who simply did not pick up on them. This extreme example demonstrates just how destructive culture, hierarchy and social rules can be to performance. Air Korea has since reinvented their communication strategy to utilise English as the cockpit language thereby bypassing these cultural traditions.

I suppose it could be surprising to discover that the most formal and hierarchical cultures are the least innovative. But this post industrial fact is fairly clear.

So what?

Take a view on your own culture.

  • Is it open minded?
  • How prescriptive is it?
  • How accepting of new ideas?
  • Can those in junior positions approach seniors with thoughts and ideas? Concerns?
  • How restrictive is your approach to trying new things out?
  • Worth thinking about.

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