Subcultures are often thought of in a corporate environment as evidence of fragmentation of the organization or a failing of management to impart a compelling collective vision. Some have argued that strong organizational cultures, where members agree and care about an organizations values, almost preclude the formation of subcultures. There is significant evidence however, that even within the most successful organizational cultures there can exist, and sometimes must exist, strong subcultures in order to provide the mechanism for adaptation and change. In the same way that the innovative company creates change in the world, the innovative sub-culture creates change within a company.
The evidence for subcultures within your organization will be all around you. A few years ago I had an opportunity to meet with a large advertising agency and spent a few hours observing the differences between the very diverse people that can populate that industry. What struck me most were the well defined dress styles that each group adhered to in order to define themselves as being part of their own subculture. The creative tribe had their style (well pierced street fashion) and the business development tribe had their style (no tattoos, no jewellery, nice suits)and it was immediately obvious who was who. Returning to my office later in the day I could see the same tribal dress (with much reduced flamboyance) in the staff I spent most of my time with.
In some instances companies rationalize subcultures as the price of doing business, “you can’t expect artists to wear suits” or “you have to supply programmers with mini refrigerators” are themes that we might be familiar with but which infer that subcultures are necessary but not ideal. Looking at some of the more diverse organizations however we often see examples of subcultures being nurtured, not just reluctantly accepted, maybe the most successful example would be Lockheed’s Skunk Works group. Can other large corporations learn from this?
Subcultures and Corporate Innovation
In most corporate environments innovation is not a priority for all employees. No matter how sensationally the “We are Innovative” PR machine spins, when pressed we all have to admit that an extremely large proportion of our collective time is spent maintaining the status quo. We all work in extremely competitive environments and to ignore the effort that is required just to avoid going backwards is an injustice on those who have this as their primary responsibility.
One concept we love at Osmotic Innovation is that corporate innovation is best done by those who choose it, rather than those conscripted. How this concept can manifest within the organization is the formation of ad-hoc innovation teams, matrix managed programs, skunkworks (in the adopted sense) and the many people from operations outside of formal innovation roles collectively bringing their ideas to life.
How then can the Osmotic Innovator use subcultures to support and nurture innovation within an organization? Rather than taking the direct (and somewhat ambitious) approach of trying to generate sub cultures themselves perhaps it is simply a matter of loosening up. Subcultures will form where a group of people have a shared opinion that differs from the collective paradigm. Where they flourish is in environments where they are allowed to express their differences, that is, where an organization lets them and encourages them to be different. Innovation as we mentioned earlier is by and large a fringe activity within most large organizations and so is an ideal activity to be the rallying point for sub culture formation. By loosening up some of the organizational cultural norms the Osmotic Innovator empowers the subculture to define itself and thus achieve in the light of day rather than in secret. Your innovators will identify themselves if you allow them to; just give them their own space, their own time or simply the freedom to dress themselves in the morning.
 Alicia Boisnier, Jennifer A. Chatman The Role of Subcultures in Agile Organizations. Accessed Sep 2012. http://www.hbs.edu/research/facpubs/workingpapers/papers2/0102/02-091.pdf
When most companies build their staff they focus on identifying the best talent in their industry, proudly trumpeting this as both a reason to join their company and for stockholders to take heart in their capacity to stay ahead of the competition. As discussed previously in this blog this can lead to a very narrow focus within a team, limiting diversity of thought. Can an organization work around this by finding someone that can force teams to stretch outside their comfort zones while still being a productive and regular member of the team?
In fact, the skills required for this role have been recognized for millennia. In mythology, stories are full of trickster gods that challenged the status quo, whose role seemed on the surface to be spreading discord. Take Loki from Norse mythology. In the stories, he appears to fill many roles and is even able to take many forms as a shape shifter. His role is not to govern but rather to disrupt and to agitate. Alternately the other gods love and hate him. The role of Loki is as an antagonist – his appearance in a story drives it forward and forces the other gods to take action. Even today scholars debate his intent in the stories – his presence still causing discord, discussion, and ultimately ideation. The trickster figure is complicated in myth – they are often seen as rule breakers, sometimes malicious and sometimes not, but often to positive effect. They are problem solvers and deliver solutions – often times being the source of the innovation of fire.
Even the stolid courts of the medieval period recognized this skill: the “fool” was expected to not only be funny, but to also deliver insightful and truthful commentary that would allow the leaders to more thoroughly see the world. This was the living embodiment of the trickster, an antagonist that creates change through disruption.
But what type of person can serve as the trickster or fool on your team? How can a person like this fit without being a disruption to the team and group dynamic. I would propose that this role can be filled by what we’d know as a generalist. The generalist is an individual with broad knowledge. Much like Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin they can fill multiple roles and careers in their life, having interests as broad as writing a new bible, creating a university, and governing the nation in the former case and writing and publishing (including the everything-you-ever-needed-to-know Poor Richard’s Almanack), amateur science, and diplomacy in the later case. The generalist has knowledge on a variety of topics, being conversant in them while having the ability to learn and acquire subject matter expertise quickly in order to leverage their broad base of knowledge.
The generalist must also have the confidence to speak up. This is because the generalist also benefits through naivety – unencumbered by the certain knowledge of the status quo they are able to call it as they see it. When an idea has no clothes, but those close to the industry or technology are unable to recognize it, the generalist can demonstrate true sight, asking questions and revealing truth that will allow others to recognize something that can (with hindsight) seem rather obvious.
Retaining this skill is difficult though. The generalist is at a disadvantage to peers with expertise and experience in a field and needs to have the confidence and personality to speak their mind in the face of a well-organized and entrenched opposition. Further, the complex nature of the Fools role requires them to be a very special individual, curious enough to question every detail, competent enough to understand a vast array of topics, skilled in communication to deliver their true message, and social enough to be welcomed into a team without being a threat. Ignoring this critical role can ensure that your team smoothly rockets toward mediocre innovation. Having a powerful voice in this role can boost the productivity and quality of output exponentially. The successful Osmotic Innovator knows how much resource a fool can save through practical knowledge, common sense, and deep insight. The question isn’t how to get rid of the fool on their team, but how to get more of them.
As discussed in a post last week, innovation is in part a cultural phenomenon – something that is in a lot of ways the antithesis of the culture that naturally appears in a successful firm over time. But its easy to change the culture to harness innovation, right?
You can’t be blamed for believing this, with the plethora of books and management consultants touting numerous ‘can’t fail’ ways to change the company culture from the CEO down as a way to boost innovation and create a renewed energy. Unfortunately, this is a lot easier said or written about than done. And what about those of us that work in a company that either thinks it is already innovative enough or has no interest in changing what works now for the larger corporation? How can an individual create real organizational change to increase and drive innovation without the power of the CEO to direct internal marketing campaigns and HR efforts?
As companies grow they require increased systems, processes, and hierarchy in order to manage the growth and control profitability. Eventually, this driving force becomes self-sustaining – with success comes bureaucracy (perhaps necessarily) and people that function well within a structured and organized environment. Eventually those innovative and driving employees that were the root of the success of the company either change to fit into the new dominant culture or are forced out. We justify this by saying that they aren’t a cultural fit anymore. At some point though in the progression of most firms it will become necessary to shift the culture to recapture that innovative spirit, at the very least within individual business units or groups that are looking for growth and new opportunities.
To understand how to impact the culture to improve innovation we must first understand two aspects of culture that can limit innovation:
Shared Beliefs: In most organizations, as a result of the filtering process that occurs during hiring and induction and that continues through teams shared experiences a strong set of shared beliefs will appear. These can be a strong tool to strengthen a corporation, leading to more delegation, decreased monitoring, higher satisfaction, higher motivation, faster coordination, and more communication, but importantly, also to less experimentation and less information collection. Experimentation and information gathering are at the core of innovation, so while shared beliefs can be great for the corporation they can also severely limit innovation for a team.
Focus on Process Excellence and Cost Cutting: As stated above, a successful firm will have developed a strong bureaucracy by the time change for innovations sake is necessary. A focus on strong process excellence and cost cutting (along with out-sourcing and quality) are essential to deliver consistent returns to Wall Street. However, they are also an enemy of innovation as they look to eliminate complex projects that don’t fit the model and discourage high risk activities that require investments of time and money.
Knowing that these two things; Shared Beliefs and Focus on Process Excellence and Cost Cutting are major parts of the problem is only the start. How might the Osmotic Innovation change their team using this knowledge?
Disrupting Shared Beliefs: One cannot eliminate all sources of shared beliefs – so long as employees work together they will gradually build this characteristic. However, manager selection of employees plays a very strong role in sustaining shared beliefs. By selecting employees that are ‘culture fits’ or that think like the manager they sustain and strengthen this culture. Hiring people that are viewed as cultural risks while having the right skill set is one possible way to shift shared beliefs to encourage more experimentation and information gathering. Note that these should be people in important positions – having a few crazy technicians won’t disrupt the way that a group of managers or senior scientists think. It has been shown that culture and shared beliefs tend to flow from the important people within an organization so an even easier mechanism might be to put those who are willing to buck the status quo in your current organization into positions of responsibility and power or appoint them to take a lead on innovation initiatives.
Really Focus on Innovation: Because most employees see their compensation and reward systems being tied to the values of process excellence, cost cutting, and quality finding time or initiative to work on innovation or the willingness to support high programs is unlikely. Instead innovation needs to become part of everyone’s day-job, and should be tied to their annual performance / compensation reviews. This shows the commitment to innovation that can encourage creative employees to begin committing to new ideas and innovation. As was learned in the 1980’s at the joint Toyota-GM NUMMI venture, changing culture starts with changing what people do – the new way of thinking will come. John Shook has described this in a model based on Edgar Schein’s original model of corporate culture; shown to the right. Apply this lesson by making employees responsible to deliver innovation as part of their job function. The new way of thinking (and culture) will follow. Merely advertising a new motto or idea to change peoples thinking isn’t enough to change values and attitudes and what people really do.
Short of wholesale changes driven by the CEO and Board, culture change to increase innovation can be managed and implemented within smaller parts of the organization by recognizing the key factors that drive and develop culture. Disrupting the entrenched belief systems to encourage experimentation and new knowledge gathering along with making innovation a measured part of a teams job function can be the levers used by the Osmotic Innovator to change a team or organizations culture from the ground up.
Diversity of thought within corporations is a key driver of innovation. This statement is rarely challenged by those charged with building the innovation programs of companies but how often does this need for diversity actually impact the way companies hire and retain their staff base? Often the culture of a corporation is thought of as a sort of open window, allowing many diverse individuals through and only imparting influence on their behaviors and attitudes once the individual is employed.
While this argument may be reasonable for some functions where skills are readily transferable across many different types of businesses, the key participants in your corporation’s innovation program are far more likely to rely on a very similar combination of education and experience to perform highly. This in turn means that the effect of culture of a corporation is more like a filter than a window.
If thought diversity is a driver of successful innovation we must then recognize that the culture inherent to our innovation programs constrains the diversity available for these programs. Common phrases such as “culture fit is the most important factor for career success around here” or “hiring a (non core specialist) is an indulgence we haven’t the resource for” are the verbalization’s of this in action.
What happens then is that you have a program full of common professionals, maybe scientists, engineers and marketers and, while there may be some variety of thought within this narrow segment, more often than not this will pale in relation to the diversity of thought in the larger world. Think of the circus – a bunch of highly creative artists who probably see the lion tamer as the dour authoritarian compared to a pharmaceutical company where the chemist who rides a motorcycle is seen as the risk-taker by the others. The culture in these places necessarily filters the employees and creates a narrow band of thought. However big that band appears from inside it is still a narrow band.
What does this mean for your innovation program? Should you immediately go out and recruit a trapeze artist to broaden your culture? The reality is actually far simpler; your company culture acts in both directions, the trapeze artist is no more likely to apply for your vacancy as you are to join the circus. Where an awareness of diversity constraint can help your program is on the odd occasion where a genuinely divergent thinker has made their way through your company’s filter. This can occur through the recruitment of a massively talented individual whose divergence is tolerated for their skill set but more often it is the result of the normal changes in attitude and motivation that engaged employees experience over time. Unfortunately in many corporations the career path of the divergent thinker is often less than stellar and rather than encouraging this diversity the individual ends up facing a “conform or leave” decision. Within your innovation program however these people are like gold. To bring a different “thought world” to your program while still feeling they have a place within your company is a rare set of circumstances and should be recognized as such. The challenge for the innovation program manager is not in helping them conform but in maintaining their non-conformity. To get the most out of their novel perspective they should also be put in high contact roles with other groups, something that can sometimes feel counter intuitive to a manager. Managing thought diversity to improve innovation is an opportunity that only larger corporations, with significant division of labor can hope to achieve. Unfortunately it is also one opportunity that is most easy to ignore.