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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!


This week, we'll take a not-so-happy look at the state of affairs in many organizations: underlying blocks to innovation.  Gotta look at what’s broke to be able to fix it!  Next week, I promise the happier view, looking at solutions and inspiring best practices being used by innovative companies. 

Ducks in a row According to Bloomberg Businessweek’s “Most Innovative Companies” article, “Most businesses operate in ways that are antithetical to innovation.  They want stability, predictability, avoidance of risk…”  But “innovation is more about managing risk” than avoiding it…” [i]  The functions of quality control and Six Sigma are about “control.”  “The cultures of most organizations are set up to resist fluctuation and purge deviants,”[ii] known to others as “the innovator’s DNA.”

“But innovation is all about novelty and the unexpected…. innovators upset the apple cart, and move the cheese!” [iv] “In almost every company there are the ‘rebel’ thinkers, people who are always looking for ways to improve things, solve problems, individuals that look to the future, not the present or the past.” [v]  Research varies, but reports that 50-90% [vi] of all new product innovations “fail” at even the most successful companies. 

Given this predominant modus operandi, most organizations have a lot of work to do so that employees will feel safe enough to openly share their ideas and take risks.  A great amount of trust must exist in an environment in order for innovation to take place.  Very hierarchical “Win-lose organizations usually are not trusting environments…” [vii] In short, a sense of trust, safety, and partnership are key to innovation which is “a collaborative endeavor… There is little innovation without collaboration, and there is no collaboration without trust.” [viii]

Parallel Organizations: “Skunk Works”:

Some believe that it may be more efficient for large organizations to start satellite entrepreneurial organizations to germinate and develop the innovative ideas, rather than undertaking the significant task of changing the ways and culture of the primary organization.  These sub-organizations are often called “skunk works” or “skunkworks”: “groups within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy,” tasked with working on various projects. (Wikipedia)  The term "Skunk Works" is a registered trademark of Lockheed Martin, which by some accounts, was responsible for the creation of both the practice and term around 1943. 

This model will be explored in an upcoming post, as well.  However, I will say that I am highly skeptical about the wisdom of viewing this approach as the panacea.  It may be best for some rapid solutions or time-to-market “hits.”  However, it does not solve two significant and interrelated problems.  By simply handing over creative thinking and innovation to the parallel, more agile “David” structure versus forcing the larger "Goliath" organization to reshape its management practices leaves the same problem in place: the creative ideas and full range of talents of all of its employees continue to be blocked and wasted.  “Skunk work” organizations can only do so much.  What if the creative genius of everyone within the entire primary organization was cultivated and set to work – what would be possible then? 

As the 2010 Boston Consulting Group report recently summarized in this blog pointed out (and other studies concur) – U.S. businesses do not have time to leave the creative thinking to the few.  All hands are needed on deck.  For the first time since Bloomberg Businessweek began ranking the Most Innovative Companies in 2005, the majority of corporations in the Top 25 are outside the U.S. as new global leaders emerge from Asia.

From My Soapbox… 

I believe the primary shifts that need to occur boil down to this:  “In many organizations, the Exclusive Gate real thinking is seen as the purview of a privileged few.”[ix]  There’s the rub!  From my professional experience, from what I learned in my organizational development master's program, and based on the research I have conducted thus far, innovation and management bottle-necking cannot co-exist.  That’s what many of the IBM CEO study innovation leaders were telling their colleagues.  “Flatten thy organizations!”  Lose, or certainly lessen the hierarchy. 

 “People are dying to bring their passionate, authentic selves to their jobs.  In most cases, their jobs often won’t let them.  These people often represent the undervalued intellectual capital in a company.  Choke personal creativity, and you choke that organization’s chance to flourish.” [x]

Mannequin headsAs the saying goes, “A good mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  Sadly, most organizations, from corporations to small nonprofits to governmental agencies, are wastelands of brilliant, potentially profitable or otherwise beneficial ideas that were smothered by others before they were allowed to see the light of day.

And on a More Cheerful Note

In the next post, I’ll share specific practices being utilized by some to create a “thinking organization that encourages discovery and celebrates new ideas and the people who generate them.”  And then how they gather, vet, and prototype those ideas.  I hope you'll send in suggestions for some of the best practices you've encountered, as well!  Butterfly freedom image



[iv] Langdon Morris, “Creating the Innovative Culture: Geniuses, Champions, & Leaders,” InnovationLabs. (2007).







[vi] “50 Ways to Foster a Culture of Innovation,” Idea Champions puts it at 50-70% and Wikipedia offers the 50-90% figure.







[vii] Langdon Morris, “Creating the Innovative Culture: Geniuses, Champions, & Leaders,” InnovationLabs. (2007).







[viii] Langdon Morris, “Creating the Innovative Culture: Geniuses, Champions, & Leaders,” InnovationLabs. (2007).







[ix] “Fostering an Innovative Company Culture,” EOS Strategies White Paper (2010) attributed to Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D., “Thought Partnerships Build A Company's Thinking Skills.”  (2003). 







[x] “Fostering an Innovative Company Culture,” EOS Strategies White Paper. (2010).















Jennifer Blaine et al

Join us for the first part of our podcast interview with the very talented actress and playwright, Jennifer Blaine, and one of her many alter-egos, the delightful Dr. Amir, as the three of us discuss ways to tap into one's creative imagination.  

A resident of Philadelphia, Jennifer has opened for George Carlin and performed with Chris Rock and Joe Piscopo.  According to The Philadelphia Daily News, "Not even 'Sybil' can compete with Blaine's cast of characters.  Her comic genius [compares to that of] Lily Tomlin and Tracey Ullman."

Some of the tools recommended by Jennifer and Dr. Amir:

Jennifer Blaine headshot

  1. Repeat "hmmmm," as in "I wonder…" as a means of helping the synapses between the "right" and "left" hemispheres of the brain to connect.
  2. Consciously breath deeply and steadily, as with meditation, and contemplate or take in the thought: "What is it that I want to create or express?"  Then, without pressure, wait silently and patiently for the answers to emerge.
  3. See yourself as a creative being.  If we only tell ourselves and others that we are not very creative, that only serves to shut the doors to what might otherwise emerge. 
  4. Look for and appreciate creativity and beauty around you and within.  What we focus on becomes more apparent and abundant.
  5. Especially when you are feeling stuck, move your arms, legs, and neck around in a playful,
    loose way with "Creative Joint Play," either with or without music.  This exercise moves energy around your body while helping your mind to loosen up, allowing ideas to emerge. 

Jennifer Blaine & Dr. Amir – Part I


Stay tuned for the conclusion of this interview in the next blog post!


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