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Is "Innovation Culture" as Self-Contradictory as "Congressional Ethics"?

Forgive me if you think that the title of this blog post is un-American or un-Patriotic, here on the Fourth of July. I lived in Illinois for over thirty years, where the head of the Chicago FBI office once said "“If this isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States, it is certainly one hell of a competitor.” So I might be a little jaded.

Anyway, the real question here: "Is 'Culture of Innovation' an oxymoron" (meaning a self-contradictory phrase, not a super-idiot, which would be a "maxi-moron")?

I recently read a very provocative LinkedIn article, "The 'Culture of Innovation:' Misnomer, Oxymoron, Myth or Chimera?" by Eugene Ivanov. Anyone familiar with my thoughts on innovation can guess my immediate reaction: "Bull spit!" Or something similar.

I believe that developing a "culture of innovation" (or perhaps, more accurately, "a culture capable of supporting innovation") is not only not an oxymoron, but is critically important to build in organizations.

Now, as a self-proclaimed innovation evangelist, I encourage clients to be humble, control their egos, and open their minds to contradictory thinking. So lest I be a hypocrite, I need to do the same myself. I'm proud of my humility. (Get it...that's an oxymoron. Ha! Seriously funny! Oops, there's another one!)

So I read the article, and read it again. It really is provocative, which is good. I felt compelled to respond. But I had to step back, and take some time before responding, because I wanted to make sure that I was not being the all-too-common-these-days knee-jerk reactionary. I'm hoping that Mr. Ivanov and I will have a mutually beneficial (I can't stand the now-cliched term "win-win") discussion and/or debate on the topic.

There are some points on which we fully agree: culture is about sharing; corporate leaders should implement specific corporate policies that support innovation; corporate innovation begins with structure and process; and many executives (I can't bring myself to call them "leaders") spout hollow platitudes about being innovative, without actually doing the work necessary to lead innovation efforts.

But I continue to think that condemning a "culture of innovation" to self-contradictory status is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

Perhaps it's just a difference in the definition we have in our minds on the word "culture." To me, "culture" is basically that invisible operating system among a group of people that influences how they work together. Any time a group of people works together, a culture exists. It can't be avoided. It's inherent in the "way things get done around here."

The article says that culture involves sharing, which is absolutely true. But then it describes "the implicit homogenization that the sharing tries to achieve." Sharing, in my view, does not have to lead to homogenization. Groupthink is homogenization, and is absolutely to be avoided if you are to innovate.

But culture is not the same thing as groupthink. A cultural norm of seeking diverse perspectives, in fact, is one way to avoid innovation-killing groupthink. A perfect example would be his article and my response: we are both sharing openly our differing thoughts, without homogenizing them into mediocrity. If we were to continue such dialogue as innovation evangelist teammates (and I hope that we will), we would be developing a cultural component of candid but respectful disagreement that, I believe, is a critical component of a culture that supports innovation.

So diversity of perspective is important. But there can be such a thing as too much diversity in a group. If a team is going to deliver innovation, they must have some commonality -- they must at the very least be aligned on what they are trying to achieve. A bunch of people randomly doing whatever they want without coordinating with others in any way will not be innovative. They will be at least as likely to fail on innovation efforts as a "homogenized" team.

I mentioned earlier that one of the points of agreement I had with the article was on having structures and processes in place to support innovation. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding what He means by "structures and processes," but wouldn't such things going to "homogenize" a group every bit as much as shared behaviors that emerge from the group culture? I'm confused as to why "innovation culture" is oxymoronic, but "structured innovation" or "innovation process" are not. In my mind, of course, none of them are as self-contradictions like "jumbo shrimp," "internet security," or "precise estimate."

The other spot where my view diverged from the author's was on corporate executives. The article points out that a recent PwC survey found that a large majority of executive say that their current organizational culture is a hindrance to innovation. Then it condemns these executives for viewing "an 'organization culture' as something that is completely out of their control."

I'll be the first to say that there is a big difference between an "executive" and a "leader." I'll concede the point that many executives are not leaders, and that some of the best leaders are not executives. But the article's conclusion simply does not follow from the survey result.

Culture is not something that can be changed overnight, and most people -- including corporate executives who believe that they can and should change their organization's culture -- know the first thing about how to actually do it. Any executive frustrated by their organizational culture who has taken the time to read this article this far is not only a blog masochist, but must think that there is something they can do about it.

You can be frustrated with the cultural situation, without abdicating your responsibility to do something about it.

Many people in leadership roles (note that's not the same as being a real leader) do indeed abdicate their innovation responsibilities by rattling off platitudes like "innovation is everyone's responsibility." Those same people would abdicate their responsibilities with the excuse "a culture of innovation is an oxymoron." The problem lies with the lack of performance on their part, not on the words they use to justify their lack of performance.

As for the specific policy proposals made in the article...that's a whole blog post in itself. This post is more than long enough.

Calling this a quick read would be an oxymoron.

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