Friday, September 4, 2009

Saying, “We need a culture of innovation” is mostly correct and useless

Let’s say you want to go to 13th Main in Indiranagar, Bangalore. And I show you this map. Sure, it is correct that “Indiranagar” is in there somewhere. However, it is useless unless I can zoom-in and navigate. Similarly, saying “We need a culture of innovation” is nice as far as all-hands meetings are concerned. It may very well be correct. But it useless in giving direction as to what do I do day-to-day. So what do we do? Let’s see what we can learn from an expert like Prof. Edgar Schein of MIT who has been working in this field for more than half a century.

Schein was exposed to multiple cultures at an early age; being born in Switzerland of Czech and German parents and arriving in the US at age 10. I recently read 5 of his interviews and 3 papers. Here is a question which I found most relevant to our “culture change dilemma” taken from Tony Manning’s interview with Schein.

Manning: How would you respond if you were asked to help a firm develop a new culture in, say, six months?

Schein: Well, what I do in that situation is ask, “What are you trying to change?” Push it down the abstraction ladder. And they’ll say things like, “Well, we need to become more customer oriented.” Or, “We need to develop teamwork culture.” Or “We need to become more open in our communications.” In each of those cases, I push and say, “I still don’t understand what you mean. Do you want subordinates to tell their bosses what they really think of them?” Teamwork thing is a wonderful example. Everyone wants a teamwork culture, but are they prepared to change the incentive system? Are they going to have group pay? “Oh, well, no, we can’t have group pay!”

“So what’s the real problem?”

“Well, people are competing with each other too much.”

”OK, so the problem is people are competing. Let’s not call that culture. Let’s just say this is dysfunctional. So what would you like to have them do?”

“I’d like to have them cooperate”

“Well, let’s address that when they go on sales calls to talk to customers. How are we going to train people to talk to customers differently? And how can we change the individual incentive scheme?”

Now we see how Schein is zooming-in/out and navigating the map called “culture”. Question is: do you have these mechanisms to zoom-in/out and navigate in place? As Dr. Schein says, “Changing culture is a misnomer. You change people’s behaviour, and you may eventually influence their beliefs”.

If you want to read more by Schein check out: his interview with HBS on the anxiety of learning and his paper organizational learning: what is new?

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