Executive talent

Global Magazine from AESC


The Innovation-Friendly Organization

Cultivating New Ideas and Embracing Change


Speaking with AESC, author of The Innovation-Friendly Organization Anna Simpson observes that organizational systems that are fixed and predictable once served an important purpose, but now inhibit innovation.

“For the most part, the structures that we’ve had in the twentieth century have been geared toward efficiency.” These structures and systems reduce errors, raise productivity, and lower costs—positive attributes. Simpson says, “In an era of mass agriculture and mass manufacturing, these structures have been very good at producing consistent quality and standards.”

Does that rigid consistency come at a price? “Things from Six Sigma to language itself are interesting, because as people come into an organization they learn a particular way of doing things, of speaking, and what struck me is that these elements that work for efficiency don’t work for innovation.”

Organizations are being disrupted and they also need to be able to disrupt. Simpson argues that innovation demands a culture that enables new ideas to grow and thrive, and the foundation of such a culture is diversity.

However, says Simpson, most organizations bring people together not for their diverse qualities, but because they share a common belief system, or common culture, or common aspiration. “Often we organize as people who are like-minded, but for innovation we need to be really open to people who are not like-minded.”

Simpson writes, “Organizations that want to disrupt their sector with new models need people who can see over the walls of current myths and mindsets; they may even go out looking for them. But will they recognize them when they find them? And truly listen to what those people have to say?”

Organizations determined to innovate need to cultivate qualities that foster creativity. In The Innovation Friendly Organization Simpson identifies five cultural elements that encourage the birth and growth of new ideas.

Five Cultural Elements that Encourage the Birth and Growth of New Ideas


  • Diversity

  • Integrity

  • Curiosity

  • Reflection

  • Connection










How do these elements come together to foster innovation? The culture that supports innovation begins with a vision: “If we want to be innovative as a society, if we want a company to be innovative, we need people to see beyond what we have; we need people who will challenge what’s already working, even if it’s working seemingly well.” Simpson says, “You really need people who can see the gaps and see beyond them.”

Simpson explains that an organization needs to empower people and encourage new ideas, which is why her book starts with diversity. “What an organization needs is to bring in new people with new ideas, without asking them to conform.” She likens an innovative organization to a healthy ecosystem, capable of renewing itself thanks to its diverse lifeforms. She adds that innovation should not just drive “growth for the sake of growth.” She says, “What matters is that we are able to renew ourselves as a society when we need to, when we come up against changes that are really challenging.”

The pressure to conform is a central theme as Simpson addresses integrity. She writes, “Chinua Achebe said ‘One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.’” Integrity, Simpson says, is “not seeking only one set of beliefs in an organization but to really valuing multiplicity.” She adds, “By keeping that multiplicity alive, we move to curiosity.”

According to Simpson, curiosity is the mindset that allows us to address failure with the question, ‘why?’ and keep going. “We need to keep our minds open,” but we also need to give ideas time to settle and grow. “Through reflection, we take time to let new ideas sink in.”

The innovation-friendly organization, finally, depends on connection. Why? “Because new ideas that lead to significant disruption actually are scary,” she says. “And the thing that will enable us to confront that fear is a strong enough connection to each other and to the wider goal.”

To illustrate the value of connection, Simpson shares an anecdote from her book. She was working on a farm India learning traditional building styles and learning to build with mud alongside local people. “You build with mud in the Himalayas because it’s resistant to earthquakes, and that’s a great analogy, really, to shocks” the likes of which we see in global markets, with disruptive technologies, and impacting organizations worldwide. She explains, “I learned there that there’s something about the structure of mud, that the mud bricks bond with each other in a way that the dry, baked brick can’t—so their structures better withstand earthquakes. It’s a practical example of connection enabling you to weather a shock.” Likewise, the stronger the bonds between people in an organization, the better they’ll weather change.

Change in the modern universe is rapid and relentless. Is there a moment of recognition that we need to slow down? Simpson thinks about Ingmar Bergman, the influential film director considered a creative genius. “He used to sit and wait for ideas, for his creativity to emerge. He lived on a remote island—doing nothing but looking at the sea. For Bergman, this solitude was a fundamental part of his creative process, but within efficient organizations, we haven’t made time for that.”

That time for reflection is also well-spent considering what it is organizations want to achieve. “We’ve seen a subtle mainstream shift toward environmental and sustainable metrics—so not simply measuring everything in purely economic terms, but really looking at the wider social and environmental impacts of all sorts—from investments to outcomes, and I think that is a helpful movement,” Simpson says.

What is the relationship between an innovative culture as Simpson defines it, and retaining talent? “There are massive synergies,” she argues: “A culture that is open to ideas is really one that values people, and one in which people can bring their full selves to the organization. This means not just fitting someone into a role but supporting people to bring their full sets of values, their widest range of interests, and looking at synergies between their personal motivations and the wider goals of the organization.”

As an example of an organization looking for those synergies, Simpson recalls working with a venture capital firm in Hong Kong, asking individuals to think about their personal motivations and their personal values, and to reflect on what makes their jobs fulfilling. She says, “This can be a bit scary for an organization, but an organization doing that from the beginning will be encouraging the continual learning and experimentation that make an organization attractive and innovative.”

An Excerpt from The Innovation-Friendly Organization

Seeing Life as a Game

If we want to create cultures for innovation, then rethinking life as a game is not just a metaphor. The concepts of work and play have become separated in our education systems and working practices, and it’s time to bring them back together. Looking back over the evolution of organizations, it’s easy to see how this has happened. In aiming for efficiency and productivity in the workplace, we discouraged random explorations. Likewise, the emphasis on success and achievement in education meant play only had a place ‘in between’ classes, with less time allocated to it; its only value was thought to be refreshing the mind for recognizable, assessable work. At least children got to play, though. The younger you were, the more time you got to explore your world in practical, self-led experiments. Then you were meant to grow out of it! Disciplines (an apt term) associated with creativity—such as fine art, theatre and music—were liable to be seen as ‘doss’ subjects.

Now, playgrounds are creeping back into classrooms, as well as into workplaces and other grown-up realms. ‘Play isn’t a rehearsal for adulthood’, says Dr Stuart Brown, a pioneer of play in public life. It’s part of our natural social behaviour, he argues, and rather than set aside time for play, we should let life become infused with it. The National Institute for Play, which Brown founded, is working toward this goal: it aims to unlock ‘human potential through play in all stages of life’ and to discover, through scientific research, ‘all that play has to teach us about transforming our world’.

It’s a nascent field of research, but many practitioners are already convinced that play has a role in transformation. Since 2007, there’s been a course at Stanford, open to graduates and undergraduates, called ‘From Play to Innovation’, which explores the role of play and playfulness in innovation and applies its principles to design thinking and practice. Brendan Boyle, Head of IDEO’s Toy Lab, is one of the tutors. He talks about play in a way that knocks down the idea of ‘time out’:

"To me, play is what you’re passionate about doing. You want to do it because it’s enjoyable and you want to keep doing it because it brings you joy. But play is a ton of effort."

The difference between Boyle’s approach, where play is crucial, and that of an efficient factory, where play is detrimental, is the emphasis on iteration and learning, rather than reproduction of a pre-defined model. He gives an example that shows how play can also be very much part of the design process, and even speed it along:

"We were recently working on an iPhone app for Sesame Street and were trying to think of how Elmo should dance. So we cut out a giant iPhone from foam core and filmed different people dancing inside the window. It was a very playful way to prototype and, more importantly, we learned quickly which dance moves wouldn’t work."

Is there really any difference between work and play, then, if there is an aim in mind—if the intention is to harness play for a purpose? There is a difference, says Boyle’s colleague Joe Wilcox, a toy inventor. But it’s not in the activity—it’s all about the attitude.

It’s not about goals: it’s about pushing the boundaries and discovering something. We model behaviours, experiment, and arrive at limitations and possibilities, through direct contact with the world.

Open-ended explorations are how we learn about our physical and social worlds. Random adventures become lessons through reflection, and are applied through prototyping. Play and purpose-led innovation are not only compatible in this dynamic—you could in fact argue that play is a necessary path to innovation. The lessons we learn through our own experiments are the ones that affect us most profoundly, and the ones that show us our mistakes are the most powerful. This is true not only for children, as our first experiences of getting hurt tell us, but also for adults. Dr Brown learnt all this through studying animal behaviour: the playfulness of bears, goats, dogs and other mammals. He describes seeing a polar bear and a husky engage in a sort of ‘play ballet’, mimicking each other’s movements rather than going in for a fight to the death. A playful signal—the husky ‘in a play bow, wagging her tail’—gave a social signal that the bear picked up on.

This sheds light on another reason why play is such an important path to innovation: its social side. Good ideas are less likely to come from solitary exploration, more from social iteration. Playing together builds solidarity; trying out behaviours and exploring how other people respond teaches us empathy. We learn to recognize each other’s needs. We find out what each other values, what will enable us to get along together. We build shared cultures and develop the sense that we belong together. In play, which precedes this creation of cultures and roles, we are our fullest selves. Conversely, the absence of opportunities to play can lead to a deficit of empathy and an absence of common culture, argues Brown. He started studying play when he studied a group of young homicidal men, including the University of Texas Tower mass murderer Charles Whitman, and noticed the absence of play in their interactions. Boyle and Wilcox look expressly for people who can play with others when hiring for IDEO. Is it because play helps you overcome the fear of failing in front of others? That’s one important element of the culture they’re trying to create: ‘It’s about making a space that’s safe for taking risks,’ says Wilcox. ‘We try to encourage flexing your creative muscles and interacting, rather than being the smartest designer in the room.’ They associate this social playfulness and creativity with ‘T-shaped people’: those who have some specific interests, but are also interested in all disciplines of design thinking.

We noted earlier in the chapter that a wide range of interests can support ‘global processing’, the neural activity associated with creative thinking—as opposed to ‘local processing’, associated with analysis. Research implies a correlation between ‘big picture’ (global) thinking styles, creativity and social skills on the one hand, and deeper analysis and solitary reflection on the other. However, the same person could display both styles of thinking in different contexts, and so it’s unhelpful to think people are either one or the other, global or local thinkers. I suspect IDEO loses out by avoiding hiring people it identifies as ‘I-shaped’—having deep expertise. As Tom Robbins put it, ‘There are two types of people in this world. Those who say there are two types of people in this world, and those who are smart enough to know better.’

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