Talking Creatively about Culture

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In a recent interview, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, commented, “Nobody works the way we do. The Google culture makes sense if you’re in it, and no sense if you’re not.” In one brief comment, Schmidt captures a principle that leaders are slow to grasp: the culture of an RD&E; organization has more potential for achieving and sustaining competitive advantage than any products, processes, or organizational structures. It is virtually impossible to replicate “culture”.

Talking about culture can be a challenge. Why? Because the vernacular in many organizations does not include words and phrases that adequately describe its very uniqueness. Karin Knorr Cetina in her book, Epistemic Cultures, How the Sciences Make Knowledge, describes in her research how knowledge is generated distinctively in different organizational cultures. In particular, she explores the differences between a molecular biology lab and a high energy physics lab. For example, the latter she describes as “communitarian science”, the former as “individual lab bench science”. Her comparison of these two scientific communities offers many distinctions that prompt new ways of talking about culture, especially in technical organizations.

Week before last I had the opportunity to hear Scott Anthony and Mark Johnson of Innosight (Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School, is the co-founder) speak at the Masters Forum here in Minneapolis on the subject of innovative business models and disruptive innovation. They cited some of the cultural impediments to innovative business models (e.g. “rigid adherence to financial metrics, business rules and norms or fighting against mindset; the illogic of core competencies”). Much of the time leaders fail to address adequately the unique and distinctive characteristics of culture which, for example, define a Google, and that allow innovation to flourish. These cultural elements cannot be benchmarked because they cannot be readily replicated. But that is no reason not to try to describe them.

Sometimes analogies or metaphors help when our language seems limited. Is your organization more like a high energy physics lab or a molecular biology lab? Why? Is it like Google? Or maybe it is more like eBay? How would you describe the differences?

  • Jack Johnston

    Cetina and Christensen both refer, at elast indirectly, to the issue of learning; what organizations learn, how they learn, and how they use learning to create value.

    This is a critical issue for the health of creative organizations. How culture affects the individual and organizational capacity for learning is not often discussed or well understood.

  • Mark Solien

    One of the critical “distinctive characteristics of culture… that allow innovation to flourish” is the degree of diversity found within the work teams. An optimum mix in the diversity of thought and experience on the team enables the emergence of innovation. The optimum level of diversity provides the benefit of stability, experience and knowledge from those who have collaborated together in the past. It also provides instability from those who have not collaborated together in the past. When this mix is right the team will enjoy many degrees of freedom as it operates near the boundary between order and disorder. And that is where there is a greater possibility of innovation and creativity.

  • Both with respect to learning (Jack’s comment) and diversity on teams (Mark’s comment)I think those with a healthy sense of curiosity would “get it”. But there are many factors which kill curiosity as we “mature”. Promoting curiosity is a leadership competency I seldom see promoted or actively being developed. It doesn’t usually make the “cut” when it comes to priority leadership practices.

  • Steven Gonzalez

    There is another aspect of culture that is looming over the horizon and I believe it will challenge many R&D; organizations and leaders. This aspect is the generational pull by the Generation Y employees in the workforce and those joining R&D; organizations in the future. Many organizations have been able to maintain their culture and to mold future employees into the dominant culture of the company. The next generation has very strong opinions on open, collaborative, innovative environments and have grown up in a different innovative electronic world. HBR has a great article on the leaders of the future in Leadership’s Online Labs. So the current leaders in the R&D; culture will be challenged by maintaining their culture while brining in the future R&D; leaders with different expectations for a thriving innovative organization.

  • Jack Johnston

    Steve’s comment s a good one and this is an importnat issue. For me it is a test of both organizational and individual willingness to change. Organizations and individual leaders that “get it”, understand the value of openness and trust, as well as the power of connectivity, will change, and likely thrive.