Can a Strong Company Culture Block Innovation?

For some time there has been a dominant corporate mantra: that it is important to build a strong company culture. A strong company culture has been found to help provide employees with a sense of identity and belonging, to improve engagement, to increase employee motivation and morale. It has been found to be good for retention, recruiting, and customer service – and ultimately to contribute to financial success. Yet we have found that a strong company culture may not be good for innovation.

Company culture can be coercive

Let’s give you an example of how this can work.

We have a friend who works for one of the most successful Australian retail chain stores in the country, a chain so successful that it has wiped out most of its competitors.

The commercial success of this company is often attributed to the strong company culture they have created. They are known for providing a fun workplace with opportunities for growth, for focusing on building effective leaders and teams through training and motivational programs, and for ensuring that the staff retain close connections socially as well as professionally.

In return, employees give their heart and soul — working long hours, remaining loyal through challenges (for example, not making worker’s compensation claims when they could and should) and tolerating inconvenient postings without complaint.

The culture is so strong that the employees have learned to conform rather than to question.

So while the company would like to think they are creative and innovative, opportunities for innovative growth are limited.

Synthetic thinking

Having a strong company culture is important, as all management theories will attest, but a culture that is too strong may encourage the sort of synthetic–conventional thinking that limits growth and innovation.

This type of thinking has been found to stifle growth. When there is a need to conform, there is not the sort of openness to new ideas and ways of thinking that is essential for innovation. There is not the sort of curiosity that leads to inspiration and exploration, and not the sort of flexibility that leads to the development of new concepts.

Organisational ideas and beliefs, when captured in vision and mission statements, can actually limit growth — unless they are constantly revisited and revised according to the changing needs of the organisation and the individuals within it.

Brand bias

The TV documentary Secrets of the Super Brands made a clever connection between these sorts of high-commitment companies and religion, showing how there is the same sort of neurological response in individuals in both cases.

The sort of fervour and loyalty that religious faith can engender can also be invoked by powerful companies and their brands.

We know a former employee of a large IT company who brought up the fact that he had heard their products were being produced in sweatshops.

This challenge was raised in a meeting with an important executive from the US, a meeting designed to reinforce the strong company culture.

Most of the employees and executives present were so invested in the strong company culture that they felt it was almost blasphemous to question it and were horrified at the apparent lack of loyalty.

This employee was told that maybe he didn’t belong there, and it wasn’t long before he left. At that point he took his questioning and highly innovative mind elsewhere!

Challenge the culture to change the game

It is only through learning to challenge established corporate culture that it is possible to really encourage innovative thinking.

What needs to be strong is the values base for the organization, along with the commitment to learning and growing and adapting as needed.

Like a malleable rubber, there needs to be a firm cultural foundation to gain the benefits of a strong company culture, but the organisation also needs to be made of a flexible enough material that it can be remoulded and reshaped according to changing contemporary needs.

Only then can individuals and organisations become innovative enough to survive and thrive in the ‘innovation race’.

About Your Guest Bloggers: Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant are the authors of The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game (Wiley) along with a number of other international bestselling books and resources. As the Directors of Tirian International Consultancy they help to create innovation cultures for a range of international organisations (from Fortune 500 companies through to NFPs). The Grants are top-ranking keynote speakers, and Gaia is an HD researcher and guest lecturer at Sydney University Business School. For more information see www.the-innovation-race.com.

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