How Does Culture Influence Innovation? Pt. 3 -

How Does Culture Influence Innovation? Pt. 3

While academic studies have focused on establishing the positive relationship between culture and innovation, they don’t always show how that may look like. Culture is like the fingerprint of an organisation, and how your company operates and why it operates the way it does is unique. It is what identifies you and the company.  

In this video, the last of a three-part series, I will be discussing learning culture and innovation-oriented culture: what they are, identify the unique focus of each culture type, providing a real life business example, and most importantly, what you as a small business can do to cultivate and nurture each culture type to support innovation and drive your business to success. 

WHAT IS A LEARNING CULTURE? 

A learning culture focuses on learning and development of the entire team. Teams contribute to overall team innovation as they develop new knowledge and new skills. 

Creating an environment that is for appropriate learning and knowledge transfer enhances and facilitates innovation.  

A learning culture goes beyond providing opportunities for learning, particularly formal professional development programs that focus on formalised training and mentoring structures. It’s not just the learning opportunities that count. In fact, what counts most is how learning is transferred within the organisation. A business with a learning culture don’t just focus on direct learning—they also cultivate an environment that facilitates indirect learning and knowledge transfer.  

How does a learning culture look like? 

Atlassian is an Australian program management software company with global offices in 7 countries. They value transparency and openness, teamwork, and change. They are known for affording team members with autonomy and flexibility, hallmarks of a clan culture and an adaptable culture.  

However, what makes them a learning culture is how they put their values to work. They value openness and transparency, which fuels knowledge sharing. The hallmark of the Atlassian is the value they place on feedback and their unique culture of “respectful dissent.” To create a culture of respectful dissent, they encourage everyone to “argue like you’re right, and listen like you’re wrong.” In Atlassian, dissenting is encouraged—it’s OK to disagree. It’s OK to have a different opinion, and it’s OK to express dissent. It matters, however, that you are respectful when you dissent. It also matters that you listen when someone dissents.  

How does Atlassian’s culture contribute to its success? 

In Atlassian, they believe that growth in the organisation comes from diversity in opinion. How can you learn and see things differently if everyone thought the same way? It is through seeing things differently that we find new ways to do things and to improve upon things.  

In Atlassian, they believe that it is through respectful dissent that “real ideas come out and better decisions are made.” With better decisions, you can formulate better processes that serve the entire company, develop better products and services, and better serve your customers. This is the formula for Atlassian’s success. 

How can small businesses nurture a learning culture? 

The key phrase is “respectful dissent.” The key to encouraging dissent is not just in providing opportunities to speak up and speak out—it’s in encouraging everyone in a position to make changes or drive the change to listen. In fact, we are more likely to encourage dissent when leaders demonstrate that they are willing to listen.  

A culture of openness and transparency is demonstrated in listening, more so than in speaking out. People are encouraged to dissent respectfully when they know that they will be listened to, when they know that other people will value their opinion.  

WHAT IS AN INNOVATION-ORIENTED CULTURE? 

An innovation-oriented culture focuses on developing the company’s innovativeness. This means consciously developing mindsets and processes, and ensuring the team members continually and intentionally ask, “How can I improve this? How can I make things better?” An innovation-oriented culture puts emphasis on innovation, take risks, learning, and being future-oriented. 

The different between a learning culture and an innovation-oriented culture is their level of openness and transparency. Unlike a learning culture, most innovation-oriented companies focus less on transparency and more on secrecy between teams and departments—they share information on a need-to-know basis. 

How does an innovation-oriented culture look like? 

Apple, the American multinational technology company, has nurtured an organisational culture for creative innovation. It describes is mission in the following manner: 

“ … to bring the best personal computing products and support to students, educators, designers, scientists, engineers, businesspersons and consumers in over 140 countries around the world.” 

To deliver the best, the company demands high levels of creativity and innovativeness from employees at all levels. Secrecy is a characteristic of Apple’s corporate culture. Many employees are known to gatekeep information.   

But this does not mean that they keep their employees completely in the dark, or that they do not engage in knowledge sharing. In fact, the company has famously established an Apple University, an internal education initiative, where employees can sign up for courses tailored to their positions and backgrounds through an internal website available only to Apple staff members. And in keeping with Apple’s culture of secrecy, there is not much known or published about Apple University. 

There are also other informal hallmarks of Apple’s creative innovation: The Apple Campus has been designed to stimulate creativity and innovation. The company has been known for its informal dress code, a policy that encourages creativity and self-expression.   

How does Apple’s culture contribute to its success? 

The late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, famously said:  

“Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!'” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” 

This quote illustrates Apple’s future-orientedness and what it is for—their goal is to give the customer what they want before they even ask for it. And this is exactly what contributes to their success.  

How can small businesses nurture an innovation-oriented culture? 

The key phrase is “read things that are not yet on the page.” Cultivating and nurturing an innovation-oriented culture means setting up an environment that will allow people to read things that are not yet on the page. This means being open to and even encouraging experimentation. It means ridding the system of unnecessary bottlenecks that hinders decision-making or the execution of new projects and initiatives. 

It also means training for success. While you might gatekeep information for a select few, this should not hinder you from sharing lessons learned from innovation experiments.   

Finally, remember that innovation stems from having an open mind and having an attitude that consistently seeks to improve things. It means cultivating a mindset of continuous improvement.  

TO SUMMARISE: 

  • A learning culture focuses on learning and development of the entire team. It encourages healthy and respectful dissent among team members. It thrives when teams are open and transparent with each other. Atlassian is an example of an organisation with a learning culture. 
  • An innovation-oriented culture puts emphasis on innovation, take risks, learning, and being future-oriented. A hallmark of this culture is team members continually and intentionally asking, “How can I improve this? How can I make things better?” Apple is an example of an innovation-oriented organisation. 

Knowing the different types of culture and their core focus, what kind of culture do you think your team cultivates? Do you look inward and focus on nurturing team camaraderie and a friendly working environment? Or do you look outward and focus on addressing customer pain points? Do you focus on making your systems efficient by being more stable or by being more flexible? 

More importantly, does your team embody the culture type that will enable your team to innovate? Do your processes, protocols, and policies support your culture?  

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