Misunderstandings in innovation cultures

Common misunderstandings around Innovation Cultures

Florian Sauter

3 minute read

Last year I did a review of Marty Cagan’s “Inspired” book. The book provided a characterization of innovation cultures and how the best product companies in the world differ from the rest. He characterized innovation cultures as open minded, with a high willingness to experiment, empowerment and business- and customer-savy teams. These all are very easy to like characteristics, yet they seem to be really hard to implement in a way that really yields great results. I learnt from my own journey that it’s easy to fall for the misunderstanding that “tolerance for failure” is seen as an excuse for any kind of mistake people make or any skill people are lacking. “Willingness to experiment” is easy to misunderstand as doing whatever comes to your mind like an artist who wanders around without any goal, waiting to get “inspired” by whatever mystical force. “Collaborative cultures” tend to be misunderstood as places where consensus is the only way forward and individuals can hide behind the group so one can avoid the burden of taking any decisions and being held accountable for them.

A recent Harvard Business Review article (“The hard truth about Innoation” by Gary P. Pisano) was elaborating on exactly these points.

Pisano points out that innovation cultures are often times misunderstood. He claims that the easily likeable and fun attributes like tolerance for failure, willingness to experiment, psychological safety, open collaboration and non-hierarchical environments need to be countered by some tougher and less fun behaviours to be successful:

  • A tolerance for failure requires an intolerance for incompetence
  • A willingness to experiment requires rigorous discipline
  • Psychological safety requires comfort with brutal honesty
  • Collaboration must be balances with individual accountability
  • And flat organizations paradoxically require very strong leadership

According to Pisano, three reasons make it particularly hard to implement successful innovation cultures:

  • Innovation cultures require a set of seemingly contradictory behaviours
  • Some of the needed behaviours are not “fun” at all
  • The needed behaviours are interdependent, so they cannot be implemented piece by piece

An example for contradictory behaviours is the failure of a project: Should we “celebrate” this failure as alearning and live up to the tolerance for failure value? Or should the leader of the project be held accountable? It turns out that the right answer depends on a lot of details that need to be found out first. Was the underlying reason mediocre technical skills, sloppy thinking, or poor management? Or was the project setting out to explore new technologies or new areas of business and created a lot of new insights despite not turning out as expected?

A few of the behaviours it needs to be successful turn out to be much less fun that portrait when looking at innovation cultures from far away. One of these is personal accountability. Pisano notes that “there is nothing inherently inconsistent about a culture that is both collaborative and accountability-focused”. He suggests that committees may very well review decisions or teams may provide input, but “at the end of the day, specific individuals are charged with making critical design choices”.

My personal conclusion is that there are two really critical factors on this journey:

  • Building a successful innovation culture requires first and foremost extremely skilled people who are ready to take on personal accountability
  • Leaders need to be very careful to balance out the “fun” and “creative” elements with the more tough and less likeable ones. Taking one of them to an extreme in either way will most likely bring the whole system down.