We hear it everywhere – when it comes to successful innovation, culture is critical. And too often, it’s the reason projects get shut down before they get off the ground.

If that’s the problem, then the solution seems simple: change the culture, and innovation becomes easier. But as Innovation Designer and culture expert Erika Bailey has discovered, culture is the single most challenging thing for an organization to quantify, let alone intentionally shape or change.

That’s why Erika and the team at The Moment developed The Culture Scan – a step by step tool for mapping and shifting your organization’s innovation culture.

We spoke with Erika to find out how they define and measure culture, what an innovation culture actually looks like in practice, and how anyone can use the Culture Scan to make their innovation journey easier and more effective.

 


Everyone seems to have their own definition of what culture is. Why is that?

One of the salient problems in dealing with culture is exactly that: it’s hard to understand. It’s sometimes nebulous or vague; or, people have an idea of what it is but they don’t really know what it is.

People often take a reductionist view of culture: it’s that thing that you feel when you’re in the meeting, or when you walk into a space and take a look around.

And those things definitely are a part of the culture. The way in which meetings run, the way in which an office is set up — all of these represent something. Edgar Schein, one of the most pre-eminent thinkers on organizational culture, calls these cultural artifacts? Things that you can see and hold and touch and witness and observe. They’re left behind as things we create to represent our culture.

Another problem with the reductionist view is that there’s a desirable culture, that’s the one people tend to talk about; but then, there’s the lived culture, the one you actually have. So if our office is open concept, that says something about us; however, if everyone hates the open concept and fights against it, that’s more important than the open concept setup. The Culture Scan lets you identify both.

 

How do you define culture?

We define culture as: everything about the way that we do things here. I find that you can really feel a culture when you bump up against it. When someone new comes in and they try to do things in a new way and people say, “Oh, that’s not really the way we do things here.” What they’re doing is expressing, “This is the culture we have, and you’ve just challenged it.”

So culture is all the things we do around here: The values of our organization and how they’re acted out; how we structure our work; how we structure our communication; how we structure decision making and project management. Things like org charts and reporting structures are also a part of our culture, because it speaks to what we believe in and the way we think we should do things.

Then there’s the dynamics piece: that’s the feeling, the vibe, the special cultural rituals that we have. For example, one of the things that goes into our Culture Scan here at The Moment, and this may seem trivial in other organizations, is that we make time and set aside resources to eat great food together. It’s a thing we do, and it creates a real sense of community – even our clients feel it.

At The Moment, we also believe strongly that an organization’s innovation readiness is a critical part of their culture. In order to remain relevant in today’s marketplace, it’s no longer simply an option to be innovative–it’s an imperative.

Organizations need to embrace innovation in whatever way makes sense for their business. Organizations who are defining this part of their culture ask: is our culture supporting behaviors that are innovative? Does it have an infrastructure that will support innovation work, or is it supporting the status quo? Because if it is, our innovation is just going to get gobbled up. And are we actually doing innovation work? Do we have projects and a portfolio? Are we teaching or otherwise enabling our employees to do this kind of work?

You see “hard” things like infrastructure, actual projects and so on, as core elements of an organization’s culture. How did you come to that view?

Mainly, our history in working with organizations and cultures, and working on shifting those cultures over time. We’ve seen that belief and actions are deeply connected.

What we’ve realized time and time again is that people need to stop talking about the way we’re going to be.

Talking or thinking about it only changes the desired culture. That’s it. To make an actual culture change toward a desirable state, organizations need to put hopes into action. And in an organization, what kind of things do you act on? You act on projects. You act on work. You act on structures. Rather than putting culture in a bucket over here that we don’t understand, we can focus on stuff we actually do understand.

The only way to change a culture is to actually do things differently.

 

Once you’ve defined culture, how do you measure it? How does your Culture Scan measure it?

Element by element. First, you identify: hey, what is it we’re trying to do here? How do we think we should be? Then let’s actually see how we’re doing on each of those measures. Once you’ve measured your culture, once you’ve really looked at it, you can see that this element is lower, this element is higher. Then you can start to pinpoint pieces of your culture that you wish to work on.

When people engage with this idea of measuring their culture element by element, I’ve noticed that choosing one particular element to work on almost always inevitably affects other things. These elements are interconnected.

So for example, if you choose to try and be better at co-creating with customers, bringing them closer to how you create products and services, other things on the Culture Scan tend to improve as well.

Perhaps one of your values may amp up because it’s tied to customer relationships; or, trust to take risks might actually go up a bit. It’s really interesting to watch how, by taking small steps and focusing on behaviors, you can actually impact the culture writ large.

 

How do you distinguish between the desired and actual culture?

It’s important to note that the Culture Scan isn’t a one-time thing. You should do it often, every 4-6 months, because the Scan itself is just a snapshot. If you change the way you behave, then that snapshot will change.

If you’re new to a reflective practice like this, your first Culture Scan is going to probably come out as: we’re amazing, we’re great, we’re so good, look at us! Then four months later, as people are getting used to reflecting and they’ve been talking about it with each other, they may actually be a little bit more critical. So things tend to look really rosy that first time, and then usually much worse on the second round because everyone’s decided to be frank and candid with their responses. From then on it starts to normalize. People get used to reflecting and are ready to engage in this conversation.

It’s a big leadership challenge, too. If it’s a small organization I think everyone should be involved in creating the desired culture, because you need it to reflect what people actually experience; what they believe they understand about the company.

But in a big organization that becomes unmanageable. You can’t ask 70 thousand people: what should it be like to work here? Or, what do you think the desirable culture should be? It’s possible to do it, but the effort may not be worth it. If you do the Culture Scan well, everyone gets to assess the lived culture, which is where the rubber hits the road.

A big challenge is that leadership needs to be prepared to hear the feedback.

When we work on culture with leaders, those are some of the more challenging conversations: are you okay with the fact that people say, for example, they don’t have trust to take risks here? If you’re not, let’s prepare you first to trust that your people have their finger on how things work around here. Let’s be prepared to really understand where we need to improve.

 

What are elements of an innovative culture, a culture that supports innovation?

The Culture Scan is set up as a circle. The left-hand side is all about innovative culture and is pre-populated with our thinking on which foundational elements exist in an innovative culture. A lot of our perspective here comes from Langdon Morris, who writes on the innovation master plan and what it is to be an innovation leader. The right side of the Scan is bespoke, and is filled out with each organization’s unique innovation elements.

The left side of the Scan is split into three sections: innovation behaviours, innovation infrastructure, and innovation activity. It asks things like: are we building innovation capabilities? How do we set up our collaborative environments? Does leadership understand what innovation is and are they actively sponsoring it? How willing are we to embrace change? Are there any sacred cows in our world, or is everything up for grabs?

When you put the left and right sides together – the foundational elements of innovation and each organization’s unique innovation elements – you get a much more holistic viewpoint.

 

How could an innovator at an organization use the Culture Scan to make their journey easier?

Using the Culture Scan to identify and measure your innovation culture can be an essential tool in understanding why things aren’t working. Sometimes that’s the real challenge for innovators–knowing with greater clarity why innovation work stalls or stops or falters. It can be discouraging. Knowing the causes that have actionable solutions can enable success and keep people from blaming the act of “innovating” as the reason for failure.

 

Is there an approach that is more effective, or gets results faster, than others?

We’ve learned that leadership can’t do this work alone. They can’t just set a culture and then expect things will change. You need people in all levels of the organization committed to shifting one or more of the elements in order to actually move toward an innovative culture.

That being said, you can’t do it without leadership either – they set the tone, they set the rules, and they can derail it anytime they want For example, when looking at the “Innovation Infrastructure” section on the Culture Scan, leaders make it possible for people to do the actual work, so they need to be engaged to help move those behaviours forward.

It’s also important that people understand innovation work can be, at times, uncomfortable and challenging. Often, people like to frame innovation work as fun and colorful and full of post-it notes, and that’s not untrue. But what people fail to talk about is the really hard, uncomfortable work of innovation that challenges you to look deeply at who you are and what you’re doing, and whether it’s relevant or working for customers.

Using culture as a lever to support what you’re doing can take away some of the friction, or at least let you understand why the friction’s there in the first place.

And the final enabler is getting some help to manage the change toward an innovation culture. This can mean designing your organization to be ready to do new kinds of work, or enabling people to get help when things are hard. It can mean using a design firm to accelerate and model new behaviours to help you build the culture you want.

 

What sorts of results have you seen in your work with organizations, using the Culture Scan?

We worked with an architectural firm, and their big challenge was the difference between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. Through the Culture Scan, we discovered this firm actually had two concurrent cultures; the old guard, who created certain buildings in a certain way, and the new people who were coming in with more innovative, adaptable offerings and skills. Because of this stark duality, enhanced by their physical separation – they were actually on different floors – there were quite a lot of differences between the two cultures within this one small organization.

With the Culture Scan, the firm was able to surface these differences and start to talk about whether or not their areas of difference and the subcultures were okay–because maybe they were. There are no hard and fast rules about the way your culture must be. The Scan helped them identify what was okay about this and why it felt uncomfortable.

Going through the Culture Scan also encouraged discussion about how to move forward; letting go of the discomfort and embracing the two cultures as an advantage in different scenarios.

At the time of the engagement, this firm was about to set their strategic plan, and the Culture Scan slowed them down in this task. However, it ended up being a plus – they needed to better understand their unique and complex environment – and how they could ultimately maximize the benefits from their unique dual positioning.

We’ve also worked with a number of financial institutions that have been changing, and by isolating one cultural element (i.e. customer centricity) they see other things in their Scan start to reinvigorate, or change (i.e. collaborative behaviours, innovation strategy development).

Financial institutions are hard cases because they’re so big. If you’re in a big organization, you need to ask: do we need a Culture Scan for the whole organization, or do we just need to know about the culture of our department, or our area? Maybe you need to measure all the different cultures and then see how they fit as a whole. There’s no one way to approach it, but ask yourself this: is the way you work aligned with what you want to do?

 

If I’m an innovator and feel I’m bumping up against the culture – and I want to change that culture – why should I join the webinar? What will I get out of it?

The number one thing you’ll walk away with is the understanding of how culture can be less abstract and more actionable. When people say we need to change the culture, people ask themselves, in exasperation: how do I do that?

We understand that, so we’ll show participants how to break culture into manageable parts, and we’ll explore some essential conversations to have with leadership so that you can become part of the solution. The webinar will help you wrap your head around what exactly culture is, and give you actionable takeaways to help you assess, measure, and change your culture.

In fact, you can check out the Culture Scan now, before the webinar (click here). We give it away, it doesn’t cost anything. It’s very aligned with our social purpose of wanting to help people move their innovation work forward, and our belief that there shouldn’t be a barrier to that.

But of course, you can’t just download it and read it and hope your culture will magically change, though that would be nice! You have to put in some effort to use it.

It’s hard work, but it’s good work that is, in our opinion, vital.