May 8

Cultivating a Thriving Culture for Innovation: A Practical Leadership Approach

Innovation has often been treated as a cyclical phenomenon, eagerly embraced during prosperous times and relegated to the sidelines during economic downturns. However, in today’s globalised business landscape, where geographic boundaries and market barriers are rapidly disintegrating, a company’s innovation ability has become a constant imperative rather than a passing trend. The capacity to tap into the fresh, value-creating ideas of employees, partners, customers, suppliers, and other external stakeholders is no longer a luxury but a fundamental driver of performance, value, and growth.

Research findings by McKinsey continuously underscore this reality. More than 70% of senior executives regularly acknowledge that innovation will be among their companies’ top three growth drivers in the next three to five years. Other industry leaders perceive innovation as the most critical catalyst for accelerating the pace of change in the current global business environment. Visionary strategic thinkers are transcending traditional product and service categories to pioneer innovative solutions in business processes, distribution models, value chains, business models, and even the fundamental functions of management.

In this era of unrelenting change and fierce competition, the ability to continuously innovate has emerged as a crucial differentiator and a prerequisite for long-term success. Companies that embrace innovation as a core capability and foster a culture that nurtures creativity, experimentation, and collaboration are better positioned to navigate the complexities of the global marketplace, anticipate and respond to shifting market dynamics, and ultimately outpace their rivals. However, despite leaders acknowledging that innovation is a prerequisite for long-term success, tangible progress often needs to be revised, with 94% of executives dissatisfied with their company’s innovation performance.

From my experience helping leaders around the world build innovation-focused cultures, the challenge frequently lies in the inherent ambiguity surrounding the concept of organisational culture itself. Discussions revolve around vague notions of values and ideals, making culture an elusive target that is either overlooked or dismissed. This is particularly true for larger corporations, where there is a natural bias toward tangible, process-oriented measures, making the abstract idea of ‘culture’ something that can’t easily be correlated to increased performance and so falls too far down the priority list.

However, as disruptive change sweeps across industries, addressing cultural barriers to innovation is no longer a luxury but a necessity. To effectively navigate this paradigm shift, companies must strip away the confusing language and low-impact initiatives and instead focus on practical solutions that directly address real strategic challenges.

One crucial shift in this regard is to move away from the amorphous concept of ‘culture’ as a whole and concentrate efforts on fostering specific behaviours that drive innovation. Organisations can establish a clear connection between culture, behaviours, actions, and outcomes by articulating desired behaviours within targeted contexts, such as a specific function, team, or business unit. This approach makes the desired cultural change more approachable and actionable. It empowers teams to take ownership of the transformation process. Rather than being overwhelmed by overhauling an entire organisation’s culture, they can focus on cultivating specific behaviours within their spheres of influence.

Additionally, cultural change efforts should be inextricably linked to specific business outcomes and aligned with the company’s overarching strategy. Unquestioningly emulating the cultural attributes of admired companies without considering the organisation’s unique challenges and priorities is a recipe for failure.

A prime example of this principle in action is the transformation that took place at Home Depot under the leadership of Robert Nardelli in the early 2000s. The company’s entrepreneurial culture, which had served it well in its early years, had become a hindrance as it expanded and shifted its focus toward more extensive supplier relationships and economies of scale. By recognising that the existing culture no longer supported the company’s evolving strategy, Nardelli initiated changes that fostered greater cross-functional collaboration and discipline. This alignment between culture and business objectives was crucial to Home Depot’s continued growth and success.

A more recent example of how specific cultural attributes have been used to shift behaviour and performance has been seen at the Singapore-based financial institution DBS, which has been named “World’s Best Bank” by several global publications, such as Euromoney and Global Finance. Its success can be attributed to its focus on creating an innovation-led culture where employees can make faster, better decisions aligned with the bank’s values and priorities.

Equally crucial to focusing on the components that drive innovation is thoroughly understanding and addressing the underlying blockers that impede desired innovative behaviours. Many culture change programs fail due to a lack of in-depth examination of the root causes of these innovation blockers, which undermines progress. This is one of the reasons why I’ve pioneered the development of the corporate innovation maturity assessment, or ‘AIM’ for short, an assessment tool designed to help organisations uncover their innovation blockers. It’s the best way to build transformation strategies that don’t fail because it uses a targeted approach to addressing root causes rather than surface-level symptoms or assumptions.

To further accelerate progress, companies should leverage a combination of formal organisational changes, such as adjustments to recognition schemes, and informal ‘behavioural nudges’ – low-cost, low-risk interventions rooted in behavioural science that gently encourage desired behaviours without mandates or significant economic incentives. The effective use of behavioural nudges can drive significant cultural shifts without the need for complex, costly, and often-resisted top-down mandates.

By focusing on specific behaviours tied to innovation outcomes, aligning cultural efforts with business priorities, addressing underlying blockers, and employing a combination of formal changes and behavioural nudges, organisations can create an environment that nurtures and encourages innovation at all levels. This holistic approach not only enhances the impact of culture change initiatives but also empowers employees to take ownership of the transformation process, fostering a sense of shared purpose and commitment to continuous innovation.

However, an innovation-focused culture requires an environment that nurtures specific behaviours such as creativity, experimentation, and collaboration. Effective leadership is at the heart of this environment– creating conditions that empower individuals and teams to reach their full potential.

Truly great leaders understand that their primary responsibility is to cultivate an atmosphere where people feel safe expressing themselves, taking calculated risks, and pushing boundaries in pursuit of innovative solutions. This sense of psychological safety is a powerful catalyst for innovation, as it encourages honest feedback, open communication, and a willingness to explore uncharted territories without fear of consequences.

The critical importance of psychological safety was strikingly demonstrated in a landmark experiment conducted by Google a few years ago. After analysing over 250 attributes across nearly 200 teams, the tech giant discovered that a team’s composition was far less significant than the dynamics of how team members interacted with one another. Remarkably, psychological safety emerged as the most crucial predictor of a team’s success, outweighing all other factors.

This finding resonates with the research of organisational psychologist Daniel Cable, who identified the ‘Seeking System’ – an inherent drive within all humans to strive for excellence, perform at their best, and continually improve. This system is activated when individuals feel free to express themselves, explore novel ideas, and experiment without fear of repercussions. However, when fear enters the equation, the Seeking System is effectively shut down, stifling creativity and innovation and killing culture.

Unfortunately, many leaders, albeit subconsciously in many cases, still resort to negative behaviour in a misguided attempt to drive short-term results. This approach not only undermines psychological safety but also creates a toxic culture where negative behaviours become normalised, leading to a vicious cycle of diminished performance and individual well-being. Truly influential leaders, however, understand that ruling through fear is a sign of personal weakness, not strength. They recognise genuine leadership is about inspiring and empowering those around them, not intimidating or coercing. These leaders fully control their emotions and possess the emotional intelligence to create an environment where innovation can thrive.

Building an innovation-led culture requires leaders who embrace vulnerability, actively seek diverse perspectives, and foster an atmosphere of curiosity and trust. They encourage open dialogue, celebrate failures as learning opportunities, and empower their teams to take calculated risks without fear of retribution. Moreover, these leaders lead by example, embodying the values and behaviours they wish to cultivate within their organisations. They actively listen, provide constructive feedback, and celebrate successes—no matter how small. But more significantly, they also celebrate failures to prioritise the value of experimentation and learning. Doing so creates a virtuous cycle where innovation capability becomes ingrained in the organisational DNA, driving continuous growth and adaptation in an ever-changing business landscape.

In essence, the role of leadership in building an innovation-led culture cannot be overstated. It is a delicate balance of creating an environment that nurtures creativity while providing a clear vision and strategic direction. By adopting a pragmatic and targeted approach to building an innovation-focused culture, leaders can unlock their organisations’ full potential to deliver value, growth, and a competitive edge in an increasingly dynamic and complex world.

If you want to explore how me and my team can support you and your organisation on your innovation journey, whether that’s embedding the right approach to Leading FOR Innovation, helping you build the right culture, or designing the right innovation-led strategy, get in touch and let’s chat.


Innovation, Innovative Culture, organisational culture, Strategy

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