By Gary P. Pisano

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All credit to the writer, based on snippets from Harvard Business Review – JANUARY–FEBRUARY 2019 ISSUE

A culture conducive to innovation is not only good for a company’s bottom line. It also is something that both leaders and employees value in their organizations.

Gary informally surveyed hundreds of managers about whether they want to work in an organization where innovative behaviors are the norm. I cannot think of a single instance when someone has said: “No, I don’t.” Who can blame them?

Innovative cultures are generally depicted as pretty fun. When I asked the same managers to describe such cultures, they readily provided a list of characteristics identical to those extolled by management books: tolerance for failure, willingness to experiment, psychological safety, highly collaborative, and nonhierarchical. And research supports the idea that these behaviors translate into better innovative performance.

But even though innovative cultures are desirable and that most leaders claim to understand what they entail, they are hard to create and sustain. This is puzzling. How can practices apparently so universally loved—even fun—be so tricky to implement?

The reason, I believe, is that innovative cultures are misunderstood. The easy-to-like behaviors that get so much attention are only one side of the coin. They must high-performance by some tougher and frankly less fun behaviors. Tolerance for failure requires an intolerance for incompetence. A willingness to experiment requires rigorous discipline. Psychological safety needs comfort with brutal honesty. Collaboration must be balanced with individual accountability. And flatness requires strong leadership.

Innovative cultures are paradoxical. Unless the tensions created by this paradox are carefully managed, attempts to create an innovative culture will fail.

1. Tolerance for Failure but No Tolerance for Incompetence

Given that innovation involves the exploration of uncertain and unknown terrain, it is not surprising that tolerance for failure is an important characteristic of innovative cultures. Some of the most highly touted innovators have had their share of failures. Remember Apple’s MobileMe, Google Glass, and the Amazon Fire Phone?

They set exceptionally high performance standards for their people. They recruit the best talent they can. Exploring risky ideas that ultimately fail is fine, but mediocre technical skills, sloppy thinking, bad work habits, and poor management are not. People who don’t meet expectations are either let go or moved into roles that better fit their abilities.

2. Willingness to Experiment but Highly Disciplined

Organizations that embrace experimentation are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. They do not pretend to know all the answers up front or to be able to analyze their way to insight. They experiment to learn rather than to produce an immediately marketable product or service.

A willingness to experiment, though, does not mean working like some third-rate abstract painter who randomly throws paint at a canvas. Without discipline, almost anything can be justified as an experiment. Discipline-oriented cultures select experiments carefully by their potential learning value, and they design them rigorously to yield as much information as possible relative to the costs. They establish clear criteria at the outset for deciding whether to move forward with, modify, or kill an idea. And they face the facts generated by experiments.

A willingness to experiment does not mean randomly throwing paint at a canvas.

3. Psychologically Safe but Brutally Candid

Psychological safety is an organizational climate in which individuals feel they can speak truthfully and openly about problems without fear of reprisal. Decades of research on this concept by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson indicate that psychologically safe environments not only help organizations avoid catastrophic errors but also support learning and innovation. For instance, when Edmondson, health care expert Richard Bohmer, and Gary researched the adoption of a novel minimally invasive surgical technology by cardiac surgical teams, we found that organizations with nurses who felt safe speaking up about problems mastered the new technology faster. If people are afraid to criticize, openly challenge superiors’ views, debate the ideas of others, and raise counter perspectives, innovation can be crushed.

We all love the freedom to speak our minds without fear—we all want to be heard—but psychological safety is a two-way street. If it is safe for me to criticize your ideas, it must also be safe for you to criticize mine—whether you’re higher or lower in the organization than I am.

Unvarnished candor is critical to innovation because it is the means by which ideas evolve and improve.

4. Collaboration but with Individual Accountability

Well-functioning innovation systems need information, input, and significant integration of effort from a diverse array of contributors. People who work in a collaborative culture view seeking help from colleagues as natural, regardless of whether providing such help is within their colleagues’ formal job descriptions. They have a sense of collective responsibility.

5. Flat but Strong Leadership

An organizational chart gives you a pretty good idea of the structural flatness of a company but reveals little about its cultural flatness—how people behave and interact regardless of official position. In culturally flat organizations, people are given wide latitude to take actions, make decisions, and voice their opinions. Deference is granted on the basis of competence, not a title. Culturally flat organizations can typically respond more quickly to rapidly changing circumstances because decision making is decentralized and closer to the sources of relevant information. They tend to generate a richer diversity of ideas than hierarchical ones because they tap the knowledge, expertise, and perspectives of a broader community of contributors.

Leading the Journey

All cultural changes are difficult.

Organizational cultures are like social contracts specifying the rules of membership. When leaders set out to change the culture of an organization, they are in a sense breaking a social contract. It should not be surprising, then, that many people inside an organization—particularly those thriving under the existing rules—resist.

Managing cultures are not all fun and games.