“We don’t have a culture of innovation” – Is it helplessness or an excuse?

posted by Ravi Arora December 13, 2016

‘We don’t have a culture of innovation’ is the most common reaction that one gets from senior leaders who are not happy with the intensity of innovations in their company. There could be two types of emotions that evoke such a statement:

  • A genuine helplessness of not being able to do anything about the culture which is stopping the company to be more innovative. This as per me is a very good news.
  • An excuse made to justify the low intensity of innovations. By attributing to culture, the person shrugs off any responsibility or accountability of doing anything about it. This is accepted by almost everyone because no one knows how to create or build a culture of innovation.

This article explains why helplessness is a good news and how one culture created or shape culture

Let’s start by understanding the meaning of the word ‘culture’. If one is asked to explain his/her understanding about culture, the typical answer would be: ‘What and how we do and say’, ‘the way we behave’, ‘the way we listen’ or ‘the way we treat others which include employees, peers, customers and others’ and so on.


Extraction of relevant parts from the dictionary for the word ‘culture’ is:

  1. The integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.
  2. The set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.
  3. The set of values, conventions or social practices associated with a particular field, activity or societal characteristic.


This is how researchers have defined culture:

  • Kroeber and Kluckhorn (1952) – Culture is nothing but a set of social norms and responses that condition people’s behaviour.
  • Hofstede (1980) – National culture as “collective mental programming”. Culture is an enacted system of beliefs, symbols and behaviors which binds individuals in groups.
  • Sin and Tse (2000) – Patterns of shared values and beliefs developed over time, producing behavioural norms that are adopted in solving problems.
  • Pierre Bourdieu (1990) – Symbolic systems that are products of practices, which are ‘coherent and compatible with the objective conditions – but also practical and easy to master and use.

With the above definitions from dictionary and research, can the culture (comprising behavior, beliefs and shared values) become an impediment for innovation? Yes, of course. Let us take a few examples:

  • Individuals: Fear of being mocked or thrashed for sharing an out of box innovative idea
  • Individuals: Fear of failure leading to their reluctance to work on those idea that could fail
  • Team leads: Fear of generating defects while experimenting for an innovative idea
  • Innovation team: Fear of losing annual bonus or promotion to those who are not responsible for innovation

The above actually indicates that culture could be an impediment for innovation. So how does one change this culture to one that is conducive?

Before we answer this question, we first need to understand how culture gets created?

How is culture formed in an organisation?

The culture exists in all the societies from where people join organisations. People come with their own culture inherited from their societies that is influenced by religion, ethnicity, country and few other factors. When people from varied culture come together in an organisation, the organisational culture builds over a period of time either naturally or by intent. Ben Horowitz said – Truth be told, either you can shape your own culture or it will inevitably shape itself.

If the culture is not shaped, it naturally gets influenced by the founder and senior leaders. It also gets influenced by those people who are from similar culture and outnumber others. The prevailing culture of the industry also influences the culture of an organisation.

On the other hand, if the behavior and values of senior leaders are not coherent, it results in an incoherent or disparate culture in the organisation.

How does one shape the culture?

catching the cloud

Culture cannot be imported or transferred overnight in an established organisation. Culture get shaped and reshaped slowly over a long period of time. Following elements contribute in building/shaping and also in reshaping the culture.

  • Create processes that are simple and enjoyable for people to follow. Employees should not feel burdened to follow them.
  • Do and not only say: The extent to which senior leaders themselves follow the above processes and encourage/reward others for following them is crucial for reshaping the culture. Remember, people see everything that others do and especially their seniors and leaders. The action of leaders in tough situation and testing times has a huge bearing on the formation or change in the culture of organisations.
  • Persistence: Culture is mostly created for the next generation. CEOs inherit culture and they need to reshape it for their successors by modifying or introducing processes and persistently following them for years.
  • Communication: It is important for leaders to communicate why they are doing what they are doing especially if it counter-intuitive and not aligned to the existing culture. Inspirational stories – especially those that are related to unusual situations shape the culture.
  • Processes should become source of pride: Sooner the processes become a source of pride, sooner it becomes the culture.

The above discussion can be summarized as:

“Culture is nothing but process(es) followed for years in a manner that is enjoyable and/or is a source of pride”