Anthropology Innovation

On Creating a Culture of Innovation

Culture of Innovation
Written by Paula Gray

What is A Culture of Innovation?

Innovation is a hot topic and the phrase “culture of innovation” is abuzz in industries of all kinds.  While there’s much discussion of the innovation part of the phrase, there is much less of a focus on understanding culture.  It’s only in that deeper appreciation of the complexity of culture that we find the power it can yield in the innovation process. And what comes from a culture of innovation? Revenue growth.

A deeper understanding of culture is needed, in order to create a “culture of innovation”

In the world of anthropology (the experts on culture), culture is defined as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs, and any other capabilities and habits” that are learned and shared by a group of people[1] (Tylor, 1871). Culture is fragile because it doesn’t reside in one place, there is nowhere to store it to keep it safe, and no one piece holds it together.  Even the tangible artifacts of culture like documents, art, or buildings are still merely representations of the culture and don’t possess culture themselves.

So how do established organizations go about creating a culture of innovation?  It’s not just about agreeing to create or build a culture of innovation; it’s about weaving its components through the entire organization.  In that way, the “complex whole” of the culture of innovation is created piece by piece as the individual components take hold.

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Let’s take a look at Tylor’s list of some of the components of culture and see how they map to a culture of innovation:

Knowledge – This includes the brain power of the organization’s people and how well they do what they do.  However, this also includes knowledge of the customer, market, regional/national culture and global environment.  This powerful knowledge should be freely shared throughout the organization. These knowledge areas are all interconnected and together drive successful innovation.

Belief – Beliefs in this context represent both those that are outwardly acknowledged and those that are unwritten and unspoken.  Often those beliefs operating under the surface are the most powerful.  An example might be an unspoken belief that a target segment requires a particular product feature and so it stays grandfathered in without market research data to back up the decision.  It’s important to innovate around credible data, rather than an assumption or outdated belief.

Art – In this example art represents the definition of beauty, fashion, style or overall “coolness.”  Who defines the parameters for each of these?  The customer. Not the organization. In a culture of innovation, the entire organization “sees” through the eyes of the customer at their level rather than imposing their will on the customer.

Law – In a culture of innovation, law refers to the structure of rules, policies, and order in the organization.  Consistent and fair policies ensure that employees feel valued, appreciated and respected while given enough freedom to be creative.

Morals – In this case, morals refer to the ethics of the organization.  These are the “shoulds” as in how the organization should operate, how they should choose vendors, or how they should promote their products.  In a culture of innovation, due diligence is conducted to ensure vendors are also operating ethically.

Customs – This refers to “how we do things around here” and includes the standards of behavior.  In a culture of innovation customs form around how success is measured, how duties and tasks are prioritized and how information is gathered.  It’s important to include customs that recognize collaboration and contributions as well.

This is a high-level view of how complex cultures are built.  Creating a culture of innovation in an organization is not as easy as merely making the decision.  The process needs to be intentional and well thought out as a system.  The benefit is an environment that not only supports innovation but inspires it as well.

[1] Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive culture researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, art, and custom. London: J. Murray.

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About the author

Paula Gray

Paula Gray is an anthropologist and the Director of Research and Knowledge Development at AIPMM. She has traveled the globe to work with companies throughout the US, Europe, Africa and Asia-Pacific to help them gain a deeper understanding of their customers. She is featured in Linda Gorchels' book The Product Manager's Handbook and has contributed to several books on product management including The Guide to the Product Management and Marketing Body of Knowledge (ProdBOK). She is also the author of numerous blog posts and papers including Business Anthropology and the Culture of Product Managers.