What is innovation culture?

Blog, Innovation

It's time for the whiz-kids to make room for everyone to innovate. New to building an innovation culture? We're sharing expert industry insights into what innovation culture really is and how your team can go about creating an innovation culture with a real impact.

What comes to mind when you think of innovation? Dramatic breakthroughs and multi-million dollar ideas? Creative geniuses and extraordinary doers? We often think of innovation as eureka-moments that only a few of the most gifted people experience, but the reality is that anyone can innovate.

The same goes for organisations. Every organisation is capable of innovating. So, why do we only recognise a few as being innovative? Usually it comes down to company culture: shared values, attitudes and beliefs that make up how people go about their daily tasks. The winners know exactly how innovation can be built into their culture. The losers? Not so much. 

What is innovation culture?

Innovation culture is more than a twenty-first-century buzzword and its importance extends far beyond performance. Everyone wants to work in an environment where innovation is possible. One that nurtures outside the box thinking, supports creators and doers and inspires confidence in people to believe in their ideas without the fear of judgement or failure. 

Creating a culture of innovation should be fun and easy, right? We all love to feel empowered to deliver new ideas and create better ways of doing things. When we ask our clients to describe innovation culture, they readily provide a list of characteristics that make them successful enablers of innovation. These usually include collaboration across silos and co-creation, experimentation, tolerance for failure, decentralised decision-making, working in iterations and candid communication. 

In many organisations, the characteristics conducive with innovation culture are actually built into their values or leadership principles. So, why is it so tricky to build an innovation culture? Why don’t values and desired characteristics automatically translate into an innovation culture? 

Experience has taught us that this usually comes down to a misunderstanding of how an innovation culture can be built from scratch or moulded by organisations. We’ve learned that there are two primary approaches to shaping culture (spoiler: one is more promising than the other, can you spot which one?). 

Innovation culture by design: Organisations design their innovation culture and implement it by releasing (sometimes overly) fancy communication materials and enforcing guidelines for innovation.

Innovation culture as a result of the right environment: When it comes to enforcing innovation culture, organisations have a clear direction, but the route to implementation is open-ended and can change with the organisation’s needs.

Woman in white room looking upwards, demonstrating the expansiveness of innovation culture

Innovation culture by design

This approach can be great for SMEs, startups and new ventures that have the opportunity to define exactly what their culture is before handpicking individuals that fit the bill perfectly. For established organisations, this approach can be challenging, especially when a way of working already exists. 

In newly created organisations leaders get the opportunity to design exactly what the organisation’s culture should look like and the traits they want in the people who will bring it to life. They can be choosy and pick employees that are the perfect cultural fit. Additionally, for companies who are still finding their feet in the market, change is inevitable so staff turnover is usually high. This means that they have the opportunity to easily adjust or even reinvent what innovation culture looks like if it doesn’t work out the first time. Or the second time. They can keep working on it until it works for them. 

The more established the organisation and teams, the harder it becomes to implement a culture that was designed on a blank sheet of paper. The reason is simple: words without action are meaningless desires. A vision needs not only communication but also activation to become reality. 

Innovation culture as a result of the right environment

You might not be in a position to start from scratch when creating your innovation culture. Don’t worry. If you have an established organisation, there might be better ways for you to make it happen. 

Start by considering how your working environment lends itself to empowering and supporting innovation. What do you do that ensures your people can comfortably and confidently innovate? And what can you do better to enable innovation? All organisations  try to be conducive to innovation in certain ways and most leaders claim to understand what an innovation culture entails. Regardless, it’s important to ensure that your employees aren’t experiencing any roadblocks that might stifle innovation. Identify and remove any significant barriers as they arise. 

It’s not uncommon for innovation to seem daunting. In fact, a client of ours put it simply: it’s significantly more labour intensive to drive an innovation project, something new and unknown, through their innovation process than work on a standard project. Needless to say, innovation under such circumstances can be discouraging.

Team brainstorming session in progress

How can we stop this from happening?

Since innovation culture usually means taking a human-centric approach and leveraging collective intelligence, harness your existing company culture and ethos to understand what stands in the way of innovation rather than chasing rainbows. Let people co-create it and it’s more likely that they’ll want to adopt it too. 

If you want an innovation culture to emerge overnight, this method is not for you. This process takes a lot of time and patience as well as leadership teams who have a genuine interest in challenging and changing their ways of working. If you’re expecting a ‘big bang’ moment to deliver your innovation culture, think again. To make this work, implement a series of small changes over time to make a big difference. 


The approach best suited to your organisation really depends on the organisation you work with. In any case, changing an organisation’s culture requires effort and leaders who recognise that there are no shortcuts to building an innovation culture. 

In small or emerging organisations basic steps taken by leaders to drive cultural change might suffice for implementing an innovation culture, such as articulating and communicating the desired culture and recruiting accordingly. However, in larger and more established organisations, building an innovation culture requires specific action. Without action to build collective values and behaviours, nothing will change. Management needs to demonstrate the ability to behave according to the desired culture and be critical with themselves to create an innovation culture with an impact. 

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