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(Since Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast anyway) — Let Them Eat Cake!

Originally written May 2011. Revised January 2018.

I am a passionate evangelist for "management innovation." This term was popularized by American management expert Dr. Gary Hamel in his great Harvard Business Review article, "The Why, What, and How of Management Innovation." It refers to an approach to leadership that allows ingenuity efforts to succeed. Once leaders have re-envisioned their own roles (as the "stand-out" leaders in the IBM CEO study did), the journey of "innovation management" can begin. But without this as the starting place, that of management "innovating itself," efforts to foster inventiveness elsewhere in these organizations will likely fail. This is key ingredient #1.

Bowl with flour and broken egg in preparation for cookingKey ingredient #2 is that leaders need to be clear that creating an innovative organization is a journey one commits to; this is the heart of "kaizen," or continuous improvement. ("What Does 'Innovation' Mean") Isolated incidents of new initiatives (whether this is a process improvement, or a novel product or service) does not an “innovative organization” make. The genius of certain organizations, those that can rightly be called innovative, is that the conditions and processes to do this repeatedly have been standardized. (Langdon Morris, Permanent Innovation and Agile Innovation).

Numerous guidelines are readily available on how to make organizations more innovative. However, having an overarching mental model for the key components and how they relate to one another can be helpful. –The one I came up with happens to very much resemble the form of a two-layer cake!


The Bottom Layer: A Solid Foundation:

There are the basic, fundamental structures and processes that are necessary to the stability of any organization. Think of it as the bottom layer of the cake. Vision and missions should be well understood and aligned; legal and fiduciary structures must be in place; clear accountability and communications systems are needed, and so on.

Once in place, this basic foundation requires regular assessment and maintenance in order to ensure ongoing organizational and fiscal health.

This layer must be solidly in place before adding the next, which contains the structures and practices that foster ingenuity. However, even if one's organization is on shaky ground, just as the successes of kaizen clearly demonstrate, integrating some continuous improvement programs among staff may help guide the organization to more solid ground. Regardless of whether an organization is ready to go fully to the next level, smart leaders engage their employees by soliciting their problem-solving and improvement suggestions.

Top Layer: Innovation Processes: 

It is here that the structures and procedures specific to innovation are added and integrated into the organization, such as:

  • The continuous collection of and reward for ideas solicited from employees, customers and stakeholders
  • Formal vetting processes to determine which ideas to explore and which to shelve
  • Rapid-prototyping to test new ideas to ascertain quickly which ones should be developed
  • Pipelines for short, medium, and long-term projects, so that the organization has a mixed "portfolio" of experimental initiatives in order to diversify its investment and risk
  • Creating “Intra-preneur” programs that reward employees to spend a modest percentage of their time developing viable ideas that may benefit the organization
  • The implementation of systems such as Lean and Agile to improve efficiency, effectiveness, speed, collaboration, and learning cycles
  • Skunk works (independent "branches") and “Organizations within Organizations,” when the organizational structure or culture is not yet conducive to integrating innovative processes
  • Practices that encourage both formal and informal cross-functional collaboration

"Management innovation" practices (see opening paragraph):

  • Systems and metrics that reward managers for experimentation and taking some risk, and not just ROI
  • Open communications systems that increase transparency, facilitate cross-functional collaboration, and that can push some decision-making downward
  • Implementation of formal roles such as "innovation champions" and MBWA (Management by Walking Around) practices

And now, for the final element…Two-layer cake cake in process of being frosted

The Icing: Daily Operations Re-thought!!  

The icing or frosting covers and runs through the center of the two-layer cake, just as culture covers and permeates an entire organization. Yes, some people prefer their cake plain, with no icing. But in this model, frosting is not an option!


The icing, or culture, is the “special sauce” or "glue" of an organization that will make, or break, any initiative. In this case, innovation efforts.


As the saying goes, "Culture eats [even the best] strategy for breakfast."

What many leaders don't understand is that creative thinking is not just a switch that can be turned on upon request, and then off for the remainder. The creative lens is a more fluid way of looking at the world. It is the one that we were all born with — before we began suppressing it around adolescence because our peers thought it too "weird" to think and speak imaginatively. Conformity became the path to fitting in and finding acceptance. To compound this, convergent, inside-the-lines/box thinking is generally reinforced by our public-school systems, religious institutions, and workplaces.

So, it doesn't work to ask employees to "turn on" their best creative thinking at a brainstorming session, but to then spend most of their working hours staying within the lines of the accepted cultural norms and adhering to "how things are done," lest they be reprimanded in some way. This simply produces " cognitive dissonance" — not a safe environment that is conducive to original thinking.


It is no coincidence that the most innovative companies have cultures that are anything but staid. They are designed to encourage playful, divergent thinking. (Southwest, Google, Virgin Air, IDEO, etc.) Creative thinking is a core value and encouraged as a norm. Their approach is both clear to see, and effective.

In organizations committed to increasing innovation, teams should be rewarded for coming up with creative approaches to how everything is done, from:

  • Recruiting
  • On-boarding
  • How meetings are run
  • The design and delivery of training
  • Communications
  • How staff is rewarded for pushing through tough deadlines
  • Celebrations
  • And so on….

Creative, experimental approaches should be encouraged for all daily, "mundane" operations by those who have the inspiration and imagination to re-envision them. Think of it as creativity applied to designing the organizational culture.


(There are some great ideas for this in John Putzier's wonderful book, Get Weird: 101 Innovative Ways to Make Your Company a Great Place to Work.)

In closing…

When it comes down to it, most leaders are not prepared to do what is necessary to create innovative organizations. Their comfort zones are generally the top-down approaches to management which, then reinforced by the culture, allows them to retain full control and, they may think, "risk less." However, this system is antithetical to fostering cultures where divergent thinking can thrive. Such organizations may be "doing fine" at present time, but they will not be innovative or as successful as they might have been, and they certainly will be more vulnerable to waning competitiveness going forward.

However, for those who are committed to doing whatever it takes to lead and thrive into the future, the good news is that some great road maps have been created by those who have been part of the many success stories. Creative thinking is contagious. Once the systems that foster innovation are put in place, and the culture is designed to stimulate creativity, permanent innovation becomes possible — with benefits that keep on giving.

Build it, Bake it – And they will come!


I am sad to have just learned of Steve Jobs' passing.  The news arrived via a friend's email that I received on my wonderful MacBook.

Screen shot 2011-10-05 at 9.17.38 PM

To watch this tribute:


He was the epitome of one who ceaselessly asked, "What if?" and "Why not?"  I find the quote of his below to be inspiring and moving.

At a 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Jobs shared the philosophy that drove him.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life,” Jobs said. “Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”


Sweet dreams, Steve.  And thank you.




Dear Readers,

I promised that our next post was to be on ideas on how to foster the creative collaboration that is foundational to innovation in organizations.  I also had some other posts lined up for some logical progression.

However, my time will be very limited for the next several weeks because a U.S. government training project for our returning military personnel is calling upon my creative skills.  Imagine that!  😉 — Did I mention that I design and deliver training programs?

In the meantime, I will share a couple of articles that I find of interest that tie directly into what we're exploring together in this forum, which, in simple mathematical formulation can be summarized as:

   Curiosity Creativity
x Good Management (Respect + Support)

(Yes, I actually made that up on the spot, and math isn't even my strong suit.  😉 )

Look for themes below that tie back to previous posts.  Again, it can all tie back to our earlier posts on the 2010 IBM CEO report on best practices for organizations that want to thrive and key points we reviewed from How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci:

  • Einstein never squelched the innate curiosity that we all were born with.  He just loved to learn and explore; that was his primary drive.
  • He didn't grow up in a family who's main preoccupation in life was looking good and fitting in.  Modus operandi such as that does not generally foster original thinking.  Integrity does.
  • He wasn't afraid to experiment and (gasp!) fail as a means of learning what didn't work, so he could ultimately uncover what did.
  • He used "whole brain thinking" with the music; let his mind wander with daydreaming and unrelated things while his subconscious continued to problem solve; he was suspicious of the convergent "single answer" thinking encouraged in many of our schools and organizations; and, I like this one, he believed we could learn about the spiritual realities (or, for those who prefer, God) by paying attention to the world around us.  — A very worthwhile pursuit.

Namaste!  EnJOY!


How Einstein Got So Smart – 10 Learning Hacks
Einstein Got So SmartHow would you feel if many people thought you were the smartest person in history? How might your life be different if you actually were that intelligent? Although we often think of Albert Einstein as one of the smartest people ever, we don’t investigate what it was that made him so. People who speak highly of him often attribute his genius to some mysterious gift. They don’t believe his smarts came from a certain attitude about learning. I believe you can recreate some of his habits to get smarter and find more rewarding work.







Einstein…the Failure?

Before you get the list of Einstein’s learning habits, consider some interesting facts about his early life. These things set the stage for appreciating his educational philosophy a little more.

  • Although he worked in engineering, Einstein’s father failed at several business ventures and had to depend on relatives for support.
  • When Einstein’s father asked his son’s headmaster what profession the boy should adopt, he said, “It doesn’t matter; he’ll never make a success of anything.”
  • He failed his first admissions examination to the Swiss scientific school he wanted to attend.
  • Some family friends told Einstein’s parents, “That young man will never amount to anything because he can’t remember anything.”
  • After graduating from the university, Einstein was denied a low-level teaching position there. (Other friends in his graduating class did get teaching positions.)
  • Many scientists and professors stonewalled his requests to work for them.
  • Einstein struggled for a few years to even find decent employment and finally got work as a third-class government patent examiner.

These things represent just a taste of the irony about his early life. Looking back – in light of his eventually recognized genius – these facts even seem humorous.

10 Things Einstein Did to Get So Smart

From what I can find, no one has compiled details about how Einstein actually studied. I doubt that his true genius was even observable to the eye anyhow. The real accomplishments went on inside his mind. I suspect his brain looked no different than ours; and genetically, nothing seemed remarkable. So, to benefit from his example, we need to look as much at his character and philosophy about learning.

1) He daydreamed and contemplated
Who has the right to say what is absentmindedness and what is pure genius? What others labeled as forgetful or even spacey, Einstein knew to be some of his most insightful, creative brainstorming sessions.

2) He Rubbed Shoulders with the Best and Brightest
Especially after his reputation became known, Einstein sought out the instruction and mentorship of the smartest people in his field, like Max Planck. If he didn’t get to know these people personally, he studied their writing and research.

3) Einstein Cross-Trained
He learned to play the violin well and loved the mathematical structure of music. He used music as a “psychological safety valve” throughout his life.

4) He Trusted His Own Curiosity
One legendary story says that his father gave him a compass when he was five years old. After lengthy observation, Einstein figured out that some outside force was acting on the needle to keep it pointed in the same direction.

5) He Maintained a Deep Suspicion of Educational Authority
Too many teachers, even in our day, feel you should believe what they say because, “I said so.” While they claim that “thinking for yourself” is part of the curriculum, their own biases and the school system’s structure discourage independent thought.

6) Einstein Nourished a “Radical Inquiring Attitude”
A Chinese proverb reads, “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.” True learning requires exploring assumptions and other facts that many take for granted.

7) Einstein Designed His Own Curriculum
He had friends at the university take notes in class for him while he was away reading his preferred “extracurricular” books or journals on physics and mathematics.

8) He Relied on Faith to Learn
Einstein’s faith was that by inquiry and discipline you could learn things about invisible objects or phenomena. His “God” was not arbitrary and conformed to natural, discoverable laws.

9) He Avoided Preoccupation with Trivial Things in Life
How much time would Einstein spend on YouTube or Facebook if he were around today? His mind reverted consistently to “exploring and understanding the physical world.” What do you think about when you have nothing else to think about? Einstein’s discoveries didn’t come easily; they came from discipline!

10) Einstein Was an Autodicact. 
As one biographer (Ronald W. Clark) wrote, he “found his real education elsewhere, in his own time.” Schooling provided the basic building blocks of language and concepts, but Einstein’s initiative took his learning far beyond the limits of academics.

Einstein's Learning Hacks - Free Infographic
Get this high resolution graphic (pdf) on Einstein’s Learning Hacks – for free!

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