Is Creating An Innovation Culture The Wrong Goal?

Ross Maher

Ross Maher is the director of Build21c, an innovation project planning and research company that helps companies innovate. His specialities include project definition and set up, and he believes the best innovation occurs through a conversation with customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. Learn more at

Does your organisation have an innovative culture? Have you been through a process to create a more innovative organisation? How did it go? How did you feel throughout that process?

There are a plethora of articles, papers, tools, programs and commentaries about how to create an innovation culture (and what you are reading now is no exception!). Most of them espouse the values and leadership that innovative companies have, which while great to know, aren’t actually that useful.

And this is where I would like to divert from many of my fellow innovation thinkers by saying an innovative culture is not the goal we should be aiming for (its just an outcome or by-product). Instead of trying to create an innovative culture, we should aim to create good projects. Why? Because projects are tangible and can create obvious bottom line value.

For example: I read an article recently that recommended creating innovation by getting new new recruits to present to senior management the changes they would make to the company or its products/services. While good in theory, is this actually a good idea? And will it create a more innovative culture?

What are the chances of senior management doing anything with the ideas? What are the chances the ideas actually have merit? In my experience the chances of the idea having merit are high, however, they nearly always need some development to turn them into something that adds real value. Conversely, the chances of anything being done with the ideas is low, precisely because they still need development.

So if you are an organisation without an innovation culture, what is likely to happen at this point? Most likely the idea will be cast into the too hard / too risky / we don’t have enough time or resources basket that creates a vicious circle where the new recruits end up jaded: “They did nothing with my great idea” or “They asked me for my opinion and did nothing with it, why do I bother?”. Imagine how hard it will be introduce a new idea after this, or worse still, if you went to that person in the future looking for innovation.

The advantage of projects is that they have a start & end, someone who is accountable, a defined process for developing rough edges and are a confined place for tasking risks.

Returning to the new recruit-ideas example, another way might be to create a competition between recent graduates about identifying opportunities, and then the winning idea developed by a team of new graduates, guided by a senior executive. This creates something tangible for everyone in the organisation, and before long, it won’t just be the new recruits that want to be involved, it will be everyone.

Bit by bit, you have innovation, and more importantly, an innovation culture.

Questions to discuss with your colleagues;

  • Does your company run projects?
  • Do these projects value?
  • Has innovation ever been attempted through a cultural change program? Did it work?
  • Does your organisation create expectations that they don’t deliver on?

Tags: innovation

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