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Environment is everything ….

June 29, 2010
Loch Lomond
Image via Wikipedia


[en-vahy-ruhn-muhnt, -vahy-ern-]

1. The aggregate of surrounding things, conditions or influences

2. Ecology. The air, water, minerals, organisms, and all other external factors surrounding and affecting a given organism at any time

3. The social and cultural forces that shape the life of a person or population

How important is the role environment plays, in impacting Innovation in an organization?

The answer is simple. Environment is everything.

Here’s why-

Imagine this – you’re an expert skier, you are equipped with the best of skiing equipment, you are highly motivated and determined to ski well. And then you find yourself in a rainforest. Will you be ABLE to ski?

That is how important environment is.

Very often organizations will decide that they need talent or a competency, and it will be given top priority, the best talent will be hired, the individual will be well resourced. BUT, the environment (which is the legacy) will not be conducive to support this individual to perform and s/he will fail.

Coming back to the specific question viz. How important is environment for fostering Innovation.

When organizations engage in putting in place innovation processes, the ones that fail, do so because they failed to take environment into account.

Environment means:

1. The culture

2. The attitudes/mindsets


Hierarchical cultures will not be supportive of innovation

Directive cultures will not be conducive to innovation

Cultures that depend on bureaucracy, red tape, permission orientation

Cultures where people are scared to take risks, where mistakes are penalized publicly, where when something goes wrong it is the person and not the error that is focussed on

All the above are not conducive to fostering innovation

3 Levels of Organization Culture (Schein)
Image by MizzD via Flickr


Not invented here mindsets will ensure innovation fails

We don’t do it like that here mindsets will ensure innovation fails

For Innovation to thrive, you need an environment of:

Openness – to new thinking, new concepts, new paradigms

Acknowledgement – acknowledging that everyone can come up with an idea/breakthrough

Appreciation – for people speaking up, and submitting thoughts

Rewarding mistakes/failures – actually rewarding people for trying new things even if they fail

Perseverance – keep on trying again and again till the idea succeeds

Questioning self – questioning if I know all there is to know

Questioning all existing beliefs – being willing to lay aside my own existing beliefs in order to consider new ones

Willingness to Cannibalize self (i.e. willingness to consider product/service ideas which might obsolete existing product/service)

Ideocracy (the best idea is respected, not who it comes from)

Freedom – freedom from fear, freedom to explore/experiment, freedom of expression

I’m sure there are more indicators that can be added to the list, however, these are the big ones.

Having said that, it also depends on the resilience of the individual/species. You will find some species survive without oxygen, others that live deep on the ocean floor under huge pressure. You will find that there are some individuals who will buck the trend, thumb their nose at the establishment, however, these are few and far between. Also, they will often have the patronage of someone very senior in the hierarchy.

So finally, if an organization does have such a culture but still wants to foster innovation, what is it to do? Learn from the Armed Forces.

The world over, the armed forces are regimented, process oriented, hierarchical, have strong command and control structures and are bureaucratic. Not a very conducive environment for agility, lightning quick responses, thinking out of the box etc.

When the armed forces realized they needed the above capability, they were also pragmatic enough to recognize that their existing culture was critical in order to run a large organization. Also, in order to change the culture across the whole organization would take years, would battle and question centuries of legacies.

So in order to address the need for an out of the box, rapid response capability, they setup a completely separate unit that operated with different rules, different training, and was available to the armed forces as a special unit.

Since this unit was outside the cultural constraints of the armed forces, it could have it’s own culture. Attract a different type of talent. Run different types of processes and training. It was in effect a completely different insulated organization within a larger organization.

These are the Marines and the SEALS. The police force aped the idea and built the SWAT teams. The FBI have their Crisis Response Teams.

So as leaders of large corporations, we must realize that to ensure the entire organization becomes Innovative, is a HUGE task. Instead, create a specialist Innovation Engine within the organization, but one that is insulated enough to be able to have it’s own culture and norms.

Work towards creating specialist innovation teams and deploy them with executive sanction. Once the larger business starts to see the value such a team brings, then you won’t even need the executive sanction. The business will begin to ask for the specialists on their own, and that’s when the process can be said to be complete.

Be prepared for rivalry, because the specialist team will essentially be getting into the domain of the business with the objective of doing it better, faster or cheaper or with a higher throughput. The business won’t like them. But over a period of time there will be a grudging respect that develops. And this is how it will stay.

With all the literature out there about Leadership, one of the primary roles of a leader, is to ensure the creation and sustenance of the appropriate environment.

Environment is everything.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. gurprrietsiingh permalink*
    June 29, 2010 5:30 pm

    Agreed! However, I firmly believe that the vast majority of organizations cannot be Innovative – that, just like heightened specialised mutation, is possible only for the very few!

    Hence for the larger numbers of organizations that are unable to transform their overall cultures, this is a way out. And one that works quite successfully.

    Also addressing the challenge of large scale change being not such an exact science and successes being hardly any. This gives all those guys a chance to look at it differently.

    Eventually, via a process of grudging respect for, mimicry and assimilation, the culture and processes of these “skunkworks” will get absorbed into some of the larger organizations, and this will be a far more organic process than the inorganic, rapidly driven, change processes!

    Thanks for bringing this out!

    • June 29, 2010 5:38 pm

      Yes, there is sometimes a bit in the org DNA that decides if an organization is innovative.

      I guess this comes down to leadership – which got articulated beautifully in this blog post by a VC on why they invest in firms with founder CEOs instead of professional CEOs

      While the examples are technology specific I think they have got the reason right. When an organization is large and the founder is no longer in charge – then change is very difficult 🙂

  2. June 29, 2010 5:20 pm

    Great post as usual Joy!

    I don’t know if you meant it – but structures and processes (which are essentially the tangible part of culture and mindsets) are the biggest reasons for taking down change initiatives.

    Structures and Processes if they are changed – help set new contexts and drive new behaviors. Otherwise we will continue to have “skumkworks” projects – which are innovative outside the larger body of the parent (essentially a structural fix rather than change) organization – but never end up changing the larger culture.


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