Things that nobody tells you about innovation culture (part 1)

Blog, Innovation

Looking beyond flat hierarchies, co-creation and agile ways of working to uncover the important things that nobody tells you about innovation culture.

Flat hierarchies, collaboration across silos, co-creation, experimentation, prototyping, freedom to test new ideas and work that feels like play. This is what comes to mind when our clients think of innovative organisations. From the outside, this seems great, right? Work is less restricted and unorthodox thinking is not only encouraged, but rewarded.

However, the reality of innovation culture is not as clean-cut.

In truth, no one gets paid to just have fun and jobs aren’t just full of liberties (otherwise, they wouldn’t be called ‘jobs’). We all want to experience a sky’s-the-limit attitude at work, but this rarely comes to life in a meaningful way. The mismatch between the expectations and reality of innovation culture tends to leave staff disappointed and leaders frustrated as they work hard to create a great working environment for their people. 

So, why is innovation culture so difficult to master? 

From experience, we’ve learned that this usually comes down to a lack of understanding about what innovation culture really means. Most of us only see one side of the coin, but there is more to flat hierarchies, tolerance for failure, participation and co-creation, transparency and agile ways of working than meets the eye. 

In this two-part blog series, we’re taking a look at the flip side of the coin to help you understand what an innovation culture really looks like and how it might benefit your organisation.

Flat hierarchies redefine leadership

Innovative organisations understand that decision-making shouldn’t always come from the top. Traditional hierarchies are known for stifling innovation, causing bottlenecks, frustration and decision-making that just isn’t transparent. We know that flatter lines of communication help do the opposite, creating a more relaxed environment, greater participation and transparent decision making.

This might make decision-making sound like a free-for-all. After all, when there are fewer titles, everyone is a leader, right? 

Sure, everyone needs to lead, but this doesn’t detach leadership from responsibility, and opting for a new organisational structure doesn’t necessarily mean that the transition to new ways of working will be easy. Teams that are used to a bureaucratic structure might struggle to adopt new responsibility, especially if they have never had the chance to be involved in decision-making before. Some might even feel like they lack the confidence to lead. Fortunately for them, the ability to make decisions is not something that you’re born with, but rather it’s learned over time. 

Similarly, managers and people leaders might also have a tough time changing their behaviours to fit the new organisational structures. Any notion of control-and-command behaviours must be left at the table, and natural leaders must step up to help other team members gain experience with autonomous decision-making and taking responsibility. 

Creating a flat hierarchy means committing to shared responsibility and holding everyone accountable for their actions as well as the team’s successes and failures. If you’re only beginning to transform the structure of your organisation, here’s a tool to help you get started.

The Responsibility Process helps all team members, regardless of position, consider what their responsibilities are. Keep a copy at your desk and next time you’re questioning your responsibilities ask yourself where you are in the responsibility process and what you can do to move to the next level.

Tolerance for failure (but not all failures)

Too often we hear the phrase that an organisation lacks a ‘failure culture.’ We can’t deny the fact that many organisations don’t provide a safe environment for people to test new approaches and ideas out of fear that their innovations will reach a dead end. 

We often see that failures are avoided or concealed at all costs, just to avoid the stigma that comes with defeat. A team that only delivers successful projects might look great from the outside, but in reality, that’s a strong indication that they are lacking a failure culture, most likely lacking innovation too.

But glorifying mistakes in “f*ck-up nights” is not a solution either. Failures shouldn’t be completely desirable. It’s learning from them that makes a real difference. Leaders need to develop the right process to help their teams deal with mistakes. This starts with distinguishing the types of failure as preventable, complexity-related and intelligent failures. 

Preventable mistakes: Any mistake that could be avoided by the decision making of the team. These are totally blameworthy.

Complexity-related mistakes: These occur in complex systems in which standard processes are established to mitigate known risks, but a series of small mistakes still have the potential to lead to serious problems if they’re not identified and corrected. Think of the sinking of the Titanic. Although the boat should have arrived safely, the compound effects of the weather, poor decision making and operating mistakes led to a complete catastrophe.

Intelligent failures: Unlike the others, these are actually desired and praiseworthy as they indicate the path to success. These typically come with the exploration of the unknown and can be considered the ‘good’ type of failure. Why? They provide teams with new knowledge and can help move a project or organisation forward. Even though they support the organisation from a learning point of view, the balance between learning and investment must be carefully considered.

To extract the knowledge and learnings from any type of failure, organisations must be tolerant to failure to begin with. A learning environment can only be made possible when people are comfortable with and responsible for surfacing mistakes.

Interested in learning more about creating this sort of psychological safety to enable a learning culture that makes a real difference? Check out Google’s guide to fostering psychological safety and Amy Edmondson’s work

What’s next?

We want to give you a chance to wrap your head around what a real innovation culture looks like before taking a deep dive into transparency, participation, co-creation and agile ways of working next week. 

Take a look at the tools and ask yourself, ‘what is my organisation doing to support innovation?’ If the answer is unclear, we’re happy to help. Get in touch via email at for a quick consultation call on how we can support the development of an innovation culture that actually helps teams innovate.

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