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Community Knowledge

Innovation approaches and pathways, and the impact of organisational culture

Whitespace logo By Whitespace
29th October 2020

It is far from controversial to assert that Corporate innovation can best thrive if allowed to exist and engage beyond the walls of a given internal innovation department or team. To silo or isolate innovation initiatives can in many cases stifle their potential, impact or reach.

Room full of people chatting at a meet up

At numerous previous Whitespace Corporate Community gatherings, topics such as ‘securing support from C-suite’, ‘engaging the wider work force’ and ‘turning colleagues into innovation evangelists’ have made for energetic talking points. Broadly speaking, the potential for innovation to prosper is founded on Corporations as a whole; not just their innovation teams.

And, of course, Corporations are fundamentally organisations made up of their workforce. They are social entities, defined by the people, behaviours and interactions within them. Each is distinct in that regard, and as such each can be understood to carry a distinct culture.

It is Corporate culture, then, that one might understand as the ultimate foundation on which Corporate innovation is built. Innovation approaches and pathways must navigate, engage and compliment Corporate culture – or what is often termed ‘organisational culture’. Sometimes, meanwhile, organisational culture must itself be analysed and even strategically ‘designed’ to better help the forward journey of a Corporation looking to develop and grow. Here the design and refinement of Corporate culture can be seen both as an act of innovation, and an innovation enabler. Refining and evolving Corporate culture equally enables and bolsters many other parts of a Corporation, of course.

With that in mind, the Whitespace Corporate Community members gathered to explore those concepts, and better understand how to frame culture within an organisation, evolve or refine it, and comprehend it as a basis for impactful innovation.

The group were guided by speakers Joel Semeniuk (serial entrepreneur, author and CEO of innovation think tank HORIZONthree) and Nicolas LeBlanc (strategic designer and Strategyzer business model innovation coach).

Key Takeaways

Innovation is change; change is hard

Innovation, by definition, asks Corporations and their staff to adapt, evolve and try new things. Inevitably, change is hard – that’s particularly true of large organisations. Corporations can be understood as organisations that are designed to stay the same. They often need robust systems, conventions and processes to succeed as businesses.

And a Corporation cannot realistically be changed overnight with a simple edict passed down from the top. For a Corporation to meaningfully change – to innovate – its staff must want to change. That may even be half the battle for Corporate innovation; a front on which psychology and sociology can shift the willing to embrace change.

Organisational culture is not simply a foundation of Corporate innovation; it is a foundation of the capacity to innovate. As such, understanding, refining and designing organisational culture is something worth serious consideration.

A definition of Corporate (or organisational) culture

Semeniuk provided the following definition of organisational culture, which is extremely useful in bringing context to the wider conversation.

Over time the term ‘Corporate culture’ has also entered lay language to suggest ‘soullessness’, or insensitive and utilitarian thinking. Of course, this report does not endeavour to explore or project that definition. However, the term ‘organisational culture’ can be used to avoid that connotation in conversation, while offering a broader, all- encompassing alternative to ‘corporate culture’.

Organisational/Corporate culture is often framed as static

Many Corporations explicitly share their values and beliefs. Company mantras, leadership by example and even HR policy can empower a company. But ‘written down’ assertions a of a given culture or value can – if too rigid or unrealistic – unintentionally establish or promote unhelpful habits and behaviours. A statement of a given corporate value may help staff understand what is important, but it can equally discourage innovative thinking at an individual level, stifle initiative and hamper evolution.

Plotting a roadmap through uncharted territory

Corporate innovation is so challenging in a large part because it asks a workforce to change their habits, embrace ambiguity and try new things. That makes the planning and plotting of innovation approaches and pathways remarkably difficult. There is no map, no convention and no certainty when exploring truly new territory. Wider workforces cannot be assured definitive results or absolute successes.

Whether enacting internal innovations of entirely new projects, adapting existing innovations, or pursuing open collaboration, ‘uncertainty’ is defining.

Corporate culture, then, defines innovation pathways, for better or for worse. As such, it can be understood as a key factor in engendering innovation impact.

Designing organisational culture

While it would be nice and simple if a Corporation’s organisational culture could be changed entirely overnight, that is next to impossible. As such, it was suggested that organisational culture within a Corporation is best refined or evolved through making small changes, perhaps in very specific areas or deliberately conceived or defined silos. Those changes can permeate a Corporation and its people more effectively than forcing a sudden organisation-wide shift. The likes of ‘fear of missing out’ can encourage others from outside such silos to volunteer to embrace changes to culture. In essence, it can be much more effective to ‘pull’ a Corporation’s workforce through cultural shifts than to ‘push’ change on them.

Therefore, it can be helpful to consider organisational culture as something that can be strategically designed – or redesigned. Organisational culture is often considered as organic, dynamic and influenced by infinitesimal nuances at an individual worker level. It can be all those things, but that does not stop it being something that can also be meticulously shaped. Unfortunately, opportunities to design organisational culture from scratch are exceedingly rare at an established Corporation. As such, it is perhaps helpful to think of designing culture as a process of strategic refinement.

Identifying organisational culture: reality vs projection

Organisational culture is often more complex than it might appear. As touched on above, while many Corporations share or promote a ‘written down’ statement of company values or beliefs, that often fails to reflect the entire reality of existing organisational culture. There can be a disconnect between projected culture and actual culture.


Key points to consider when designing or refining culture

Innovation is relative – It is key, when strategically designing business culture, to remember that what is considered as ‘meaningful innovation’ changes from department to department, and at different levels. Embracing quantum computing can be considered a meaningful innovation; introducing a new spreadsheet format might also make for a meaningful innovation. The two sit on entirely different ends of the technology spectrum, but may be equally valuable in different contexts.

Failure and error are distinct – Failure and error can both be learned from; but they are not always one and the same.

Testing results – Consider ways to test enablers, both newly designed and existing. Think carefully about what to test. Conceiving metrics to measure innovation is a complex subject matter. For more on this consider reading the Whitespace Corporate Community meeting report ‘Establishing a Metric to Articulate the Contribution and Value of Open and Collaborative Corporate Innovation’, from the November 20th, 2018 Whitespace Corporate Community meeting.

During the Corporate Innovation Community meeting attendees workshopped their own Culture Maps, enabling them to identify blockers, behaviours, habits, rules, unwritten factors, and enablers that impact business innovation and practice, as well as a workforce’s interactions with its Corporation. Such a visualisation can help identify points requiring change, and offer a starting point or foundation on which to design and enact better organisation-wide culture.

An example of moving through the process from culture mapping to culture design and implementation would proceed as follows:

Examples of blockers and enablers identified in the room included:


Culture can also vary from department-to-department, or be founded at a C-suite level when the reality is very different ‘on the shop floor’. Results-based incentives across a Corporation can also impact the reality of workplace culture and behaviour. Legacy culture can equally prove strikingly established and ingrained, even if there have been recent attempts to reinvigorate or shift organisational culture. Unspoken rules and assumptions can be as powerful or pervasive as formalised culture.

Elsewhere, the reality of the full spectrum of culture in an organisation is rarely explicit or clearly defined, and often emerges by accident, without being formalised or designed.

As such, strategically designing a better organisational culture to empower the capacity for meaningful innovation is often a process best started with a frank, open-minded look at the reality of one’s Corporation’s organisational culture (as distinct from asserted, promoted or stated organisational culture).

Approaching designing (or mapping) culture within a Corporation

The challenge in trying to design or map corporate culture comes from the fact that it requires unpacking a big, abstract concept, and realising it as tangible and actionable information.

As such, the speakers at the Whitespace Corporate Community gathering presented a method through which to systematically map existing corporate culture, before intentionally designing a refined or revised version.

It was suggested that one could consider the mapping and design process as broadly akin to designing a garden. While a garden designer can’t assure the way every branch and leaf will grow, they can choose types of plants, and their position relative to the sun, growing conditions, soil make-up and so on. Strategic business design as a process may not be able to assure every nuance of every individual’s behaviour and habits within a Corporation, but it can establish what is needed to enact meaningful, positive change.

It was then suggested that using a ‘Culture Map’ – as devised by Strategyzer and Dave Gray (davegrayinfo.com) – can help individuals, teams and entire Corporations formalise and organise their understanding of their organisation’s culture. That process can, in turn, serve as a starting point for strategically designing or refining Corporate culture.

A culture map lets an organisation list and visualise the following:

Filling in a Culture Map such as the example below can help corporations and corporate innovators understand the complex dynamics of their organisation’s culture. It can also offer a chance to consider what an ideal culture map would look like, and how one’s own can be adjusted or refined to enable better innovation and general business practice.

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