Embracing Challenge to Build a Stronger Innovation Culture



Just as your body is designed to fight a common cold, most of our cultures protect the organisational DNA from any antibodies. Add something new and it can get rejected.

As Chris Bolton has written organisations can have immune systems and idea antibodies. As Chris says – It’s not personal. It’s just an automatic survival mechanism.

The stronger your culture – the more resistant it can be to change.

The challenge then is not to embark upon another change programme , but to disrupt your culture.

I’m writing this on the way to talk to a group of Non Executive Board Members alongside Helen Bevan – on the subject of embracing challenge to build a stronger innovation culture.

We need a system upgrade for sure.

What does a 2.0 version of organisational change look like?



At Bromford we’ve learned to distinguish between wicked problems which might require widespread organisational change – and the smaller changes and innovations we can introduce from the edges.

Scalable innovation in our world is often about joining the dots & making optimal investments. Marginal gains rather than big bang programmes. This involves less reporting and more doing. Discreet tests and pilots that explore a new world without fully committing to it.

However – larger scale innovation dies or thrives from the top. Accordingly the role of Boards in understanding the process of transformation, and the innovation culture it requires to thrive, cannot be underplayed.

nhf-boards-paul-taylor-2Boards themselves, not just executives, need to reflect on whether innovation receives sufficient attention during meetings, and also consider what role they should play in supporting transformative efforts. Supporting the attitudes and mindset from which effective innovation is born is a responsibility of all leaders.

Establishing a governance that supports disruption

If the culture is risk averse you have a problem as innovation always entails risk. A culture of innovation must accept and even encourage considered risk-taking – including failure.

Risk-aversion of corporate governance structures has the potential to quash innovation.

The organisation of the future will be one that differentiates their customer experience from the competition. Those who rip the rulebook apart, rather than slavishly follow the herd,  will be rewarded.

Giving people permission to create new rules is the quickest way to eliminate fear , the biggest enemy of innovation.

There’s an inherent tension here – and for good reason. Permissions need to be managed or chaos reigns.  The trick is finding the balance – and creating an innovation process that also practices good risk management.


The first step to change is recognising there is  often a cognitive bias against new introductions.

Most Change Fails because the case for change has not been made strongly enough and communicated well enough.  If it’s only leaders and managers who understand why the change is important it’s doomed.

Our track record of introducing change programmes is abysmal. And yet we now need to rewire our organisations for disruption.

What does a 2.0 version of organisational change look like?

It’s less a time limited programme and more a way of life.

It’s a culture where everyone is actively questioning the status quo and is rewarded for it.

It’s a culture that constantly asks: “How can we do this better?” or “What would we do if we started again?”.

It’s a culture that can sustain as much rapid change as possible without falling apart.


9 thoughts on “Embracing Challenge to Build a Stronger Innovation Culture

  1. Paul’s right that overly controlling governance approaches and cultures will inhibit innovation. If executives are always worrying about how the board will react to failures and mistakes they will pass that worry along the chain to all colleagues. Innovation is all about getting things wrong over and over again, but a bit less wrong at each iteration. It’s not easy for non executives to find that right balance between managing risks and encouraging the failures that can drive learning and positive change.

  2. Great post Paul! We did an interesting bit of work on testing new approaches to auditing the involvement of people in public services and Chris Bolton got us to do some ritual dissent, which I personally found fascinating. I’d only been working on an approach for 1/2 a day, but already I felt attached and uncomfortable when listening to others pull my idea apart. Once that settled down though, it was fascinating to see how that approach had been strangthened. It would be fascinating to see this approach applied at Board level.

    Hope all’s well and keep up the good work!


  3. Thanks for the mention Paul.
    The role of Boards and other governance structures is critical.
    One of the ideas I’m trying to find a way of expressing is around the notion that Failure (and Innovation) are very much about the context that they sit it.
    There’s a place where failure shouldn’t happen (something highly predictable where you will cause damage), and places where it definitely should (experimenting small scale with different ideas).
    I think the challenge with lots of the risk management processes that Boards get encourages to use is that, they treat everything like a highly predictable situation, rather than something complex.
    The mantra of ‘make it simple’ and executive summaries might have something to do with this….?
    I think lots of what you’ve done with the Lab to raise awareness of experimentation and failure is spot on.
    Going back the the ‘Fleas in the Jar’ analogy that is in the post I wrote that you’ve mentioned, it’s the ‘governors’ and the ‘strategic decision makers’ that need encouragement to jump beyond the lid of the Jar, just as much as the innovators and idea generators.

    1. Thanks Chris – you’re spot on.

      One of the comments I always get on Twitter when I post something like this is “That’s OK for you to say but what would the Daily Mail say?”

      As you say – it’s all down to the context of the failure.

      There’s a big difference between process or people failure that causes damage and purposeful experimentation that actually expects (and even encourages) failure.

      Tom Hartland said to a group of visitors on Friday “My job is to break it and make it fail so we can learn the lessons without damage”.

      It’s a pretty important distinction!

  4. May I suggest that you avoid using the line “our cultures protect the organisational DNA from any antibodies”? Antibodies are defensive tools, not offensive. Living cells produce antibodies to protect themselves FROM external agents, not the other way around.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s