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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’m actually taking great liberties with the classic quote, “Life is a banquet, but most poor suckers are starving to death!" from Patrick Dennis’s book and Broadway hit, “Auntie Mame.”  

My point being that although there are countless ways to engage our creative problem-solving brains to innovate day in and out, I am not optimistic that the majority of Americans in the business, non-profit, or governmental sectors will access this cornucopia before a lot more damage is done to our economy, environment, quality of life, and future potential.

For many, the word “innovation” is just a buzzword.  They fail to understand that innovation is a state of mind and an approach, not a commodity that one can just order up, like a pizza, or flip on with a switch.  Thinking that one can just make a few minor adjustments within one’s organization to become innovative is like having an argument on the cell phone while driving 90 miles an hour to get to a retreat center, and expecting serenity or enlightenment to be waiting at the door upon one’s arrival – It just doesn't happen that way.

And this is why it is projected that by the year 2020, only one out of five S&P 500 companies will still exist (findings of a comprehensive study published in Creative Destruction by R. Foster and S. Kaplan).  The majority of companies simply will not have adapted to the changing world, and will therefore make themselves vulnerable to being taken over, sold off, broken up, or bankrupted.

I’m currently listening to the audiobook, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, co-authored by international journalist Thomas Friedman (author of the blockbuster The World is Flat) and American foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum.  Like the authors, I consider myself to be a “realistic optimist.”  By which we mean that it is only by clearly taking in the “bad news” — the looming threats facing our companies, institutions, and economy — that we have any chance to do what is necessary to adapt our mindsets and correct our course.

Like Friedman and Mandelbaum, I too, still believe in “Yankee Ingenuity” and that we have the collective capacity to rise to the occasion and deal with great challenges, just as Americans did in The Great Depression, World War II, and the race to the moon.  But we can’t even begin until we pull our heads out of the sand.

When it comes to business, I am enough of a capitalist to believe in the survival of the fittest.  On one hand, I believe that companies led by short-sighted, arrogant leaders and managers should fail.  It’s best for them to get out of the way to make room for other ventures led by those who are wiser, more humble, and better attuned to both the world around them and to the intelligence and talents within their ranks.

The tragedy won't be the auctioning off of the brick and mortar and mastheads of these companies themselves over the next decade.  Rather, it will be the human costs resulting from the bad choices made by those leaders: the millions of talented people who will lose their jobs and livelihoods, as well as the loss of tax revenues that will further cripple our society.

And then “four out of five” of these US companies will fail?! – Even if it were half that (e.g. 51% of CEO's in the 2010 IBM CEO study expressed concerns regarding their companies' futures for lack of creative thinking abilities) — what part of economic catastrophe do we still not understand?!  Neither manufacturing jobs or increasingly outsourced pink and white collar services will be returning from our lower-cost overseas competitors in any significant numbers.  That leaves American creativity and inventiveness to carry our economy forward.  Yet we allow Brazil, India, and China to far outspend us in innovation (Boston Consulting Group Report, 2010) as the previously unchallenged lead we held in patent application filings now steadily shrinks. &

Even among those in management who are talking about innovation, many don’t seem to grasp the irrefutable causal relationship between management style and innovative culture.  I don’t believe that most American managers or the consulting professionals upon whom many of them rely, understand this fundamental reality: sustained innovation cannot exist in hierarchical, siloed, watch-your-back organizations.

“Management innovations” are necessary in order for other forms of innovation to see the light of day.  It has been stated in numerous ways throughout these blog-posts that an organizational culture that fosters an innovative mindset and which produces winning results requires authentic mutual trust and respect throughout the organization.  As the stand-out CEOs in the IBM 2010 Global CEO survey (“Capitalizing on Complexity”) indicated, trust and innovation are the means and ends and involve:

  • Cross-departmental and external stakeholder collaboration
  • Efficient and open communication in which mistakes are valued as educational opportunities rather than something to be covered up or blamed on someone else
  • Comfort with ambiguity, experimentation, and trial by error
  • Encouragement to question the status quo for the sake of continuous improvement
  • Processes and reward systems for fully engaging employees in contributing ideas for continuous improvements and increasing problem-solving autonomy throughout the ranks.

All of these necessitate a collaborative, versus a command-and-control style of management.  Evidence abounds that the most successful U.S. companies (like Southwest Airlines, Google, and Apple) flatten their organizations and, far more than average companies, value and foster both the creativity and critical analysis of “whole brain” thinking at all levels.

Yet evidence and logic do not persuade many in leadership whose perceptions continue to be clouded by barriers of their own making.  I am not optimistic that most organizational leaders in the U.S. are willing to trust and develop their employees’ abilities enough to relinquish control, because, as is said in Twelve-Step programs, their pain isn’t deep enough yet.  –If only their poor choices wouldn’t inflict so much pain on the rest of us.


However… despite my concerns expressed above, as a dedicated realistic optimist, I will continue to focus my attention not on those who stubbornly fail to grasp the paradigm shifts that are necessary, but rather on the great innovators in all walks of life working with their creative muses and collaborating all over the world.  I will feed my spirit and mind by exploring and learning along with those equally excited by the possibilities and the array at the banquet table!

Bon appetite!


The next post will further explore management innovation with a review of Gary Hammel’s great Harvard Business School article, “The Why, What, and How of Management Innovation.”



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.




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