4 Things You Need To Build An Innovative Culture



Before you embark on your next reorganization designed to
“break down silos” you might want to think about how informal
relationships develop within your enterprise. The truth is
that innovation is never about nodes. It’s always about

In the late 1960’s, Gary Starkweather had a serious spat with his
.  As an engineer in Xerox’s long-range xerography
unit, he saw that laser printing could be a huge business
opportunity. His manager, however, was focused on improving the
efficiency of the current product line, not looking to start
another one.  

The argument got so heated that Starkweather’s job came to be
in jeopardy. Fortunately, his rabble rousing caught the
attention of another division within the company,
the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) which wasn’t
interested in efficiency, but inventing a new future and they
eagerly welcomed Starkweather into their ranks. 

Within a decade, Xerox’s copying business declined sharply, but
the laser printer took off and soon became the firm’s main
source of revenue. In effect, the work that was squelched in
one culture, thrived in another and saved the company. We tend
to think innovation is about ideas, but it depends on people
even more. Here’s how you create an innovative culture.

1. A Focus On Problem Solving

When you think about an innovative culture what probably first
comes to mind is a bunch of fast moving hipsters guzzling down
energy drinks and pulling all-nighters, pausing only to play a
quick game of foosball or frisbee. Or maybe Steve Jobs on stage
with a devilish grin just before he wows the audience with “one
more thing…”

Yet in researching my book, Mapping
, I found that very few of the organizations
I studied looked like that. Some were fast moving startups, but
most of the successful ones were led by executives that were
mature and thoughtful, not brash or erratic. Others were large
corporations and world class labs that tended to be fairly

The one thing I found in common in every fantastically
innovative place I looked at was a disciplined passion for identifying new
. Unlike most organizations, which are content to
struggle with everyday issues, the enterprises I studied
had a systematic method of finding new problems to work on
that would take them in new directions.

The approaches vary considerably. IBM creates grand
challenges, like building a computer that can beat humans at Jeopardy.
Experian set up a Datalabs division to find out
what’s giving its customers “agita” and launch new business off
the solutions they build. Google’s “20% time acts as a human-powered search
 for new problems. 

We tend to think of innovation as fast moving, but the truth is
that it usually takes 30 years to go from
an initial discovery to a measurable impact. So the “next big
thing” is usually about 29 years old. If you want to
innovate effectively, don’t chase the latest trend, find a
problem your customers will care about and solve it for

2. Create Safe Spaces

In 2012, Google embarked on an enormous research project. Code-named
“Project Aristotle,” the aim was to see what made successful
teams tick. They combed through every conceivable aspect of how
teams worked together — how they were led, how frequently
they met outside of work, the personality types of the team
members — no stone was left unturned.

However, despite Google’s nearly unparalleled ability to find
patterns in complex data, none of the conventional criteria
seemed to predict performance. In fact, what they found
mattered most to team performance was psychological safety, or
the ability of each team member to be able to give voice to
their ideas without fear of reprisal or rebuke.

Interestingly,  highly innovative teams can be safe for
some ideas, but not for others. For example, two of the
scientists at PARC, Dick Shoup and Alvy Ray Smith, developed on a revolutionary new
graphics technology called SuperPaint. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit in with
the PARC’s vision of personal computing, the two were
ostracized and eventually both left.

Smith would team up with another graphics
pioneer, Ed Catmull, at the New York Institute of
Technology. Later they joined George Lucas, who saw the
potential for computer graphics to create a new paradigm for
special effects. Eventually, the operation was spun out and
bought by Steve Jobs. That company, Pixar, was sold to Disney in 2006 for $7.4

Xerox PARC is now a shadow of its former self. As it turned
out, anything that didn’t have to do with the researchers’
vision for the future had no home there. So if you want to
innovate consistently for the long term, you need to create a
“safe space” for all ideas, not just the ones that fit with
your initial mission.

3. Foster Informal Networks

In 2005, a team of researchers decided to study why some
Broadway plays become hits and others flop. They looked at all
the usual factors, such as production budget, marketing budget
and the track record of the director, but what they found was that what was most
important was informal networks of relationships among the cast
and crew.

If no one had ever worked together before, both financial and
creative results tended to be poor. However, if the networks
among the cast and crew became too dense, performance also
suffered. It was the teams that had elements of both — strong
ties and new blood — that had the greatest success.

The same effect has been found elsewhere. In studies
of star engineers at Bell Labs,
the German automotive
 and currency traders it has been shown that
tightly clustered groups, combined with long range “weak ties”
that allow information to flow freely among disparate clusters
of activity results in better innovation.

So before you embark on your next reorganization designed to
“break down silos” you might want to think about how informal
relationships develop within your enterprise. The truth is that
innovation is never about nodes. It’s always about networks.

4. Promote Collaboration

All too often, we think of innovation as the work of lone
geniuses who, in a flash of inspiration, arrive at a eureka
moment. Yet the truth is that research shows that the high value work is
done in teams, those teams are increasing in size,
are far more interdisciplinary than in the
past and the work is done at greater distances.

Just as importantly, there is growing evidence that it is
crucial how these teams function. A study done by the CIA performed after 9/11 to
determine what attributes made for the most effective analyst
teams found that what made teams successful was not the
attributes of their members, or even the coaching they got from
their leaders, but the interactions within the team itself.

In another, more wide ranging study, scientists at MIT
and Carnegie Mellon found that high performing teams are made
up with people who have high social sensitivity, take turns
when speaking and, surprisingly, the number of women in the group. There is
also a wealth of research that shows diverse teams outperform more homogenous

So the evidence is both abundant and clear, if you want to make
your organization more innovative, don’t go searching for hard
driving “A” personalities spouting off big ideas and
interrupting others, but rather seek diversity, empathy and
to network your organization so that
teams interact more effectively.

As MIT’s Sandy Pentland has put it, “We teach
people that everything that matters happens between your ears,
when in fact it actually happens between people.” 


This article originally appeared at

Greg Satell is a popular speaker and
consultant. His first book, Mapping
, is coming out in 2017. Follow his blog
at Digital Tonto or on Twitter @DigitalTonto

Tags: collaboration, collaborative creativity,
digital tonto, greg satell, internal culture, network, problem solving

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