Dave Snowden

Culture and Innovation

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A google search on the phrase culture and innovation reveals 50 million hits. The first page on my browser after this search seems to be nothing but consultants offering to create an innovation culture in your organisation using a recipe or template. Type in culture and you get 770 million hits. A quick calculation makes that 6.5% but I am prepared to bet that the two subjects are more frequently conjoined in organisations. Scanning through the sites there seems to be common assumption that innovation can be achieved by focusing on creativity alone. Now there is nothing wrong with creativity programmes – all useful stuff but its not going to lead to innovation by itself. New and interesting ways of doing things, improvements on the now but I think we can do better by looking at the natural conditions under which innovation happens in human history.

I have long argued that there are three necessary, but not sufficient conditions for innovation to take place. These are:

  1. Starvation of familiar resource, forcing you to find new approaches, doing things in a different way;
  2. Pressure that forces you to engage in the problem;
  3. Perspective Shift to allow different patterns and ideas to be brought into play.

Creativity is just one way, and not necessarily the most effective to achieve perspective shift. In fact I am increasingly of the opinion that creativity is not a cause of innovation, but a property of innovation processes, its something that you can use as evidence of innovation, but not to create it.

A great illustration of this can be found in the film of Apollo XIII. Following the initial disaster a group of scientists are placed in a room and on the floor in front of them is all the equipment that is in the capsule. They are told to fix the problem and they do. Starvation of resource, pressure on time and a key perspective shift: people we know will die if we don’t find a way to think differently about the problem.

If you look at the history of science it is a succession of accidents or mavericks. True Eureka innovation is not going to happen by an internal training programme but from engagement in the real world.

Two years ago, after I left IBM we quickly put together a programme that mixed a profound cultural experience, narrative capture of issues and problems and structured lateral thinking. We brought together Shamans, cultural anthropologists, liturgical design specialists, cognitive scientists and others together to interact with real world problems faced by participating organisations. It was a planned as a part of a programme of change and we estimate it pans out at less than 30% of the cost of a tradition consultancy engagement around issues of culture and innovation.

Well we are planning to repeat the programme next yeat. The brochure will go up on the web site tomorrow and I will blog more on the subject then. The programme follows the three principles above and the key event will take place in the Australian Outback: we promise that no participants will actually starve, although one night (my birthday as it happens) will be spent in the dessert with Indigenous leaders using natural food resources.

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