Stop Blaming the Lack of Innovation on Corporate Culture

What is corporate culture?
Corporate culture is the implicit interpersonal rules within an organization that are shared by all members and continuously and extensively shape the attitudes and behaviors of organizational members. But the content that is truly relevant to innovation in corporate culture is actually just one thing: does our organization allow breaking the existing rules? Innovation is undoubtedly breaking the existing rules. The higher the tolerance, the greater the innovation, and not allowing breaking the rules will hinder innovation.

Blaming a lack of innovation in a company on its culture may be an oversimplification. If you ask anyone in a company, whether it’s the CEO, managers, or employees, they will almost all say that innovation is important and that they should be innovative. Therefore, from an attitude perspective, almost all companies today are promoting an innovation culture. The only issue is whether they have succeeded in achieving it or not.

Clearly, an innovation culture can promote innovation, and what hinders innovation is not the absence of an innovation culture. A little analysis will reveal this truth: many companies appear to have a culture that is not conducive to innovation, but the reality is a problem with the system of accountability. In fact, it is only when rules are broken that employees are punished, and the so-called “bad” culture that obstructs innovation comes into play. Obviously, if employees can break rules without punishment, this essentially allows for rule-breaking.

In other words, regardless of whether a company’s declaration of an innovation culture is genuine or not, there are four possible combinations. One company publicly declares that it allows rule-breaking, and in reality, it does so (explicit culture). Another publicly declares that it does not allow it in the regulations, but in reality, it does (implicit culture). Therefore, from a cultural perspective, this company is clearly allowing innovation.

However, when a company publicly declares that it does not allow violation of regulations, and in reality, it also does not allow rule-breaking (explicit culture), this is essentially a rule that does not permit innovation. Conversely, when a company publicly declares that it allows rule-breaking, but in reality, it does not allow employees to violate regulations (implicit culture), this is also not conducive to innovation. But it is clearly a rule problem.

Innovation is hindered not because people resist innovation, but because the direction of innovation is unclear or it is not clear what specific things need to be done.

Sometimes, telling the truth can make people uncomfortable. In a company, “culture” should be a good-natured fellow, and everyone can blame it for problems. At least the problem is in the company, and it is also an unsolvable problem. This way, managers don’t have to think about whether they have a problem themselves. In psychology, this is called the attribution error, which is a common psychological bias phenomenon among humans.

Therefore, to truly promote innovation in a company, it is not just about slapping on an innovation culture label. The real key is to see it as a systematic engineering. You need to have the right “people,” and enable them to have the right skills and master innovative methods. More importantly, you need to change the structure of the organization, abandon past erroneous systems, learn, introduce, and create an environment that truly promotes innovation, including new systems and processes. Structure determines behavior, and once managers construct the correct structure, innovative behavior will inevitably follow.

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