Steve Glaveski
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Steve Glaveski

Hacking a Corporate Culture to Support Innovation

In my podcast interview with Steve Blank, credited with developing the customer development methodology which birthed the lean startup, we touched on the topic of how the corporate culture inhibits innovation.

Culture is to innovation what soil is to a corn field, it’s critical to get it just right if it is to foster growth.

When Eric Ries taught 5,000 middle managers from GE the lean startup way, the company quickly discovered that actors without a supporting cast don’t make movies on their own.

With a history steeped in six sigma and a mentality of ‘get it perfect’, ‘avoid risk and failure of all costs’ and ‘we know what our customers want’, a radical culture shift was required before lean startup could be effectively implemented at GE.

So how do you go about changing the culture, particularly when people are resistant to change, have been taught to practice and preach a conflicting philosophy and are no strangers to “the way things have always been done around here” attitude.

In order to support innovation, it’s critical that we get people on the bus.

Hacking the Culture

Blank gave a great example of a Japanese company whose name he told us begins with ‘S’…let’s just call them, Sony, who had issues getting their middle managers to buy into a new company innovation program. The program required middle managers to give up some of their brightest staff for a period of time.

Naturally, middle managers were reluctant to let their best performers go because participation was not tied to their incentives and they didn’t see the value of the program.

What it took to change the culture

After twisting the arm of one middle manager to go first and reluctantly give up one of his better performers for a defined period of time, he was promptly presented with a letter of thanks from the President of the organisation, which in Japan, is a BIG DEAL.

Word spread, and soon everybody wanted a letter from the President, and they all got on board.

Questions to Ask

  • What or who is blocking innovation in your culture?
  • What cultural nuances exist in your organisation?
  • What do your people value?
  • How can we use these levers to ‘hack’ the culture?

We can look at this from both an intrinsic and extrinsic view.

Scientists who study human motivation have found that after our basic needs have been met, our next level of intrinsic motivators are mastery, autonomy and purpose.

Outside of intrinsic motivators, there are of course some external motivators that, while they can serve to get people on the bus, may not serve to keep people on the bus in the long-term.

Nonetheless, find below some key external motivators to get people on your innovation bus.

It’s critical to remember that no amount of isolated initiatives such as hackathons, idea contests and corporate accelerator programs is going to achieve much unless the culture of an organisation truly supports innovation and that the operating units of an organisation are aligned with its innovation objectives.

The above serves as a starting point to help hack a corporate culture for innovation.



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Steve Glaveski

Steve Glaveski


CEO of Collective Campus. HBR writer. Author of Time Rich, and Employee to Entrepreneur. Host of Future Squared podcast. Occasional surfer.