In today’s rapidly changing world, where the democratization of knowledge, sharing economy, break-through new business models, and a hyper-connected, diverse workforce have introduced market pressures never seen before, companies are hard-pressed to keep pace. There’s a constant tension between the long-term needs of supporting existing products and services and the short-term windows within which they often live. One immediate result is companies are increasingly looking to incorporate innovation as a center of excellence – seeking new ideas from all corners and establishing some means to bring these ideas to light, and life.

But, as organizations now realize, innovation isn’t a bolt-on solution that works right out of the gate. In fact, corporations are still recoiling from the misstep assuming innovation was achieved through the pursuit of technology trends. Without a well-defined, human-centered problem, so called “innovative solutions” were simply things. These initiatives rarely yielded meaningful results.

No, the primary driver of innovation rests at the heart of the company, in a facet of the business model we all know as “culture.” And so, we now find many companies pursuing a challenging, seemingly quixotic quest: how to create a culture of innovation.

Simply stated, it’s the people (employees, customers, consumers) and their motivations that are the linchpin in a company’s innovation success.

So here we are. Now, to advance this this discussion, we must first explicitly define these terms.

Culture: a shared set of attitudes, values, goals, practices, conventions, or social practices that characterize an organization

Innovation: a new or better way

For the purpose of this articles series, we’ll assume we are all in agreement with these definitions.

In the past 12 months we’ve seen an increased client demand to “build a culture of innovation.” We’ve frequently heard requests for learning and development, organizational design, and process improvement. We believe this demand will increase even more over the next several years.

Let’s get to the point: creating cultural change is a massive undertaking.

At 352, it’s a heated debate for our team. We debate the long-term effect of the work we do, especially if we’re limited to addressing only one dimension of cultural change. I’m concerned about being paid to do a great job on one dimension and then seeing limited impact because there are so many more dimensions at play.

So over the past several years, we’ve identified 14 dimensions of culture that impact success in any organization:

  1. Clear Vision and Mission
  2. Manifesto
  3. Innovation Intent
  4. Company Values: What’s Important to Our Organization?
  5. A Shared Language: Definition of Success, Risk, and Innovation
  6. Organizational Design
  7. Roles & Responsibilities
  8. Accountability
  9. Empowerment: Freedom to Experiment
  10. The People
  11. Processes
  12. Incentives
  13. Environment (The space)
  14. Learning & Development

Overwhelming? We agree.

In an attempt to reduce the complexity, we often shift the conversation into specific and measurable outcomes based on small, acute problems to solve. Maybe we develop a training program (Shared Language, People, Empowerment, Learning & Development), or we create a pilot program for an internal process (People, Processes, Roles & Responsibilities).

The point is not to boil the ocean, but to gain traction and see measurable results.

If you’re thinking “we must fix our culture…”

First, I’d invite you to compare your company to the collective culture of your neighborhood, county, city –even your region of the world. Those cultures weren’t born from a binary set of decisions, and can’t be flipped on or off (or replaced) like a light switch. They developed over time through randomness and the collective intention of their constituents. Your company culture is just as holistic.

Secondly, I would hesitate to label your culture as “broken” or assume it’s working well. Your culture is exactly what it should be, considering all the organic growth of its dimensions that grew organically. This is where you are today. No turnkey solution, no magic bullet will change this overnight.

But it can be changed.

Unlike your neighborhood, your company culture isa closed system – an organism built in a “lab,” defined by constraints and opportunities. The organism may have spawned without intention. It may have been defined by your people – coming into your organization with an external set of beliefs from their own culture(s). Perhaps it was even modeled after another company you admired.

Whatever its origin, however, as a closed “experiment,” your organization can be guided and reshaped; the trick is to do so in a way its cells can accept.

No small task, for sure. That’s why we believe organizations must strive to move directionally towards where they want to be, without deciding they must reach a “perfect culture.” We believe it’s wise to invest simultaneously in multiple dimensions of culture, ensuring evenly distributed momentum (instead of a giant initiative along one dimension that crashes under its own weight).

A word of caution, however: the changes you make may feel right for the company, but that doesn’t mean they will be easily (or happily) adopted.

Imagine walking into your home one day while your family’s away and flipping your bedroom and dining room spaces. It seemed like a great idea to you, but when your spouse, kids and dog return, they may have an entirely different opinion. You may have had their best interests in mind, but you never asked them what they needed or how it might impact them, both for the better and worse.

Changing a culture is no different. It’s critically important that we, as leaders, listen to our employees and gain an understanding of their needs, what they care about, what they believe about the organization, and where they see themselves in the company, now and in the future, even – and especially if – we don’t agree. Alignment, or lack of it, will tell you a lot. Like whether you’ve been explicit enough. Or how easy it will be for the staff to adopt to a new way of life. Or even who might not want to stay with you on the path.

Developing a culture of innovation begins with the right foundation. In future articles we’ll discuss each of these dimensions further in order to ensure if and when you begin, you’ll be as prepared as you can be to try and learn.

Stay tuned.


Robert Berris is EVP and Managing Director of Three Five Two where he leads company strategy and day-to-day operations.