The Culture Question: What Does It Take To Embrace Change?

Is your company culture holding you back from innovation?

When a streetwear brand wanted to increase its appeal to girls, it sent a group of innovation agents out to an all-girl skate park in Manchester. One of the agents described her experience to me: “We all gave it a go. I fell on my ass and was bleeding, and these six-year old girls were like, “Come on, try again!” At this, a big cheeky grin spread across her face, and she added: “I’ve never felt so empowered as in that environment: these girls falling on their chins, bleeding from ear to ear, laughing it off, and getting back up again!”

The teenage girls weren’t quite so resilient, it turned out: most gave up after their first fall. After talking to a number of girls, the agents realised that the problem wasn’t physical safety: it was emotional safety. The girls weren’t scared to fail: they were scared to be mocked for failing. If you’re going to try out new things, you have to feel safe.

Or as Ovid reportedly said:

A new idea is fragile: It is killed by a sneer or a yawn.

Google came to the same conclusion after a two-year study into what constitutes the perfect team for innovation. The researchers set out to identify particular traits of the individuals on the teams, but found that who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact. The greatest factor in the capacity of teams to innovate, they found, was ‘psychological safety’: “The more team members feel safe with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles, to harness diverse ideas from their teammates.”

An innovation-friendly organization makes it safe enough for its workforce members to take risks, admit mistakes, start over and learn as they go. But how?

Hold that question while we see why it’s not easy.

Many companies recognise the need to embrace rapid change, but find themselves stuck in a culture geared towards the very opposite: consistency. For centuries, companies have built their reputation on the ability to reproduce a certain good in a certain way to a certain standard, and at scale – whether that’s Six Sigma handsets or straight-A students. But certainty leaves little room for innovation.

Cultures primed for consistency reach deeply into organisational mores. Beyond quality assurance mechanisms for products and performance alike, there are the many factors that guide how we turn up at work and how we relate to each other. There are the clothes we wear: suits and uniforms designed for good reasons, from health and safety to public recognition, serve to keep us ‘in role’. There’s the language we use: jargon facilitates rapid understanding, at the expense of helping us keep an open mind to slightly different ways of approaching a topic. Management structures indicate not just the flow of responsibility, but the flow of thoughts themselves: who listens to whom, whose arguments carry weight, which ideas lead to action.

Take the example of Omar Ishrak, recruited by General Electric for his specialist knowledge of the ultrasound business. Even though he was brought in specifically because the management valued the difference he represented, he came quickly under a pressure to conform. In his own words: “I had all these ideas and they were probably correct, but I didn’t really know how to communicate them in the GE language.”

There’s no problem here for an organisation whose ambition is simply to keep going down the same path. At the time, GE didn’t actually want to change its way of working: it simply wanted to do well in a different sector. What it sought in Ishrak was outsider knowledge, not an alternative approach or perspective. Eventually, Ishrak learned to fit his knowledge – and his way of working – into the mold: “It was more than simply grasping the lingo. The language gave a business context and a systematic view to how initiatives could be done, and it clicked with me.”1 He did very well, rising up the ladder and expanding the business. But what was lost?

A culture primed for consistency is only a problem for companies that want to go after more radical change. They want to be able to change not just what they do, but how they go about it. They see that survival today demands agility, and know that sticking to one path is actually a kamikaze strategy.

There’s more than a little irony here. The risk of failure is greater if you’re unable to innovate, but a major obstacle to innovation is the fear of failure. This bolsters the habit of conformity and keeps consistency on its pedestal.

Back to the question, how do organisations make it safe to try something new?

Over the next few posts, I’ll share five key elements of a culture primed for innovation.

First up: that they value, encourage and reward curiosity.

Anna Simpson is a futurist and innovation coach working to help organisations and individuals build resilience in the face of complex, rapid change. She curates the Futures Centre, an online hub tracking change to accelerate sustainability, and has her own innovation coaching company, Flux Compass. She’s also the author of two books, most recently The Innovation-Friendly Organization, in which she asks how organisations can develop a culture that enables them to embrace change.

1 Omar Ishrak as cited in The Talent Masters by Bill Conaty and Ram Charan (Crown Business, 2010), 86.

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