Is creating a ‘culture of innovation’ just another business mantra?

Shift in leaders’ conversations needed to facilitate trust, creativity
By Trish Maguire
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/16/2017

Creating a “culture of innovation” and driving growth appears to be today’s business guru mantra. However, it may not be a cure-all answer.

Atul Dighe, research leader at Gartner (formerly CEB), revealed his recent 100-company-plus survey findings at SCNetwork’s recent event. The objective was to validate if an innovative culture truly impacts an organization’s ability to win in the marketplace. The compelling conclusion? “Stop trying to create the culture, change the climate.”

The outcome raises an interesting question. Can leaders change the organizational climate without understanding how the underlying organizational culture will aid or inhibit any change initiatives?  

Many researchers such as Bowditch & Buono or Forehand & Gilmer have studied the concept of organizational climate since the 1940s and all agree that certain characteristics differentiate organizational climate from organizational culture: Climate refers to the “feeling/atmosphere” of an organization; it reflects people’s perception about the organization; and it serves as a major force in influencing people’s behaviour.

Alternatively, Edgar Schein, an expert on organizational culture and leadership, offers his perspective about organizational culture: “A culture can evolve only out of mutual experience and shared learning.” It’s a perspective that essentially calls for leaders to first know and understand how their organizational culture will support or hinder any strategy to change the climate.

So let’s take a look at what that exercise might involve. For instance, if your organizational climate is one where people feel they cannot speak up freely, or raise questions and challenges about their work or direction of the organization, or are afraid to make mistakes, the level of distrust far outweighs any capacity for positive change, never mind innovation. 

When people feel they are giving more than they are receiving, or feel talked down to, they become anxious, disrespected, humiliated and distrustful. The question for leaders then becomes “What or how are our organization’s core beliefs and values supporting that behaviour?” They may also want to ask, “What is it about our organizational processes and policies that reinforce that behaviour?”

Another question might also be “How do our organizational processes and policies impact people’s behaviour?”

Too many times, I observe leaders with the best intentions limiting people’s ability to deliver any great new ideas because there is no established strategy for providing important internal support.

A second limitation I continue to see is the overwhelming focus by leaders on task achievement versus taking the time to involve people so they understand the direction of the company and how to be a part of creating future success.

People need to feel they are being genuinely acknowledged, heard, appreciated, respected and supported in achieving mutually agreed-upon goals and objectives. 

It’s imperative in today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) workplaces for leaders to ignite leadership in others; to connect, coach, mentor and develop their people and their teams. When leaders reduce fear and stress by raising and handling difficult issues openly, and when they listen deeply to seek and understand people’s viewpoints and ideas, collaboration and cooperation increase.

When leaders remain open and curious, when they ask questions that elevates people’s thinking and turn mistakes into “key learning moments,” people start thinking about how they can do their jobs better. 

All of these practices call for a shift in leaders’ conversations and facilitate higher levels of trust and creativity that leads to a healthy “climate,” which leads to quality cultures and builds thriving, productive workplaces.  

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and organizational development in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial firms. She can be reached at

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