Creating a culture of innovation and the cultural iceberg

Kirsty - July 31, 2018
Ideation

In our original 2015 blog on the “cultural iceberg” we examined how a company culture and a social culture differed.

The cultural iceberg illustrates the difference between a surface culture that’s about display, and the hidden deep culture based on:

  • Communication styles and rules
  • Notions and values
  • Concepts and roles
  • Attitudes
  • Approaches

For 2018, we dive down below the waterline further to explore how a company a culture of innovation sinks or swims through similar cultural assumptions.

Creating a company culture

One of the key elements often talked about with employee engagement is the need to create a company culture, usually focussed on ideation and innovation. But what exactly is a ‘company culture’, and is it different from the multiple cultures we see in our everyday lives?

A single company culture

There probably isn’t such a thing as a single company culture. You may be able to define the fundamental elements, but these will naturally evolve multiple facets as changes happen in your business.

Consider, for example, how your business will have changed since December 2015, especially your employees. According to recruitment company Monster:

“The UK average employee turnover rate is approximately 15% a year, although this varies drastically between industries. The highest levels of turnover are found in private sector organisations in retailing, catering, call centres, construction and media.” [https://hiring.monster.co.uk/hr/hr-best-practices/workforce-management/employee-retention-strategies/what-is-the-ideal-employee-turnover-rate.aspx]

How many staff who contributed to your company culture have moved on since 2015? And have their replacement taken your current culture on board?

A common viewpoint

It can be easy to assume that even if all employees share a company culture, they share the same viewpoints, attitudes and concepts. However, this is a very simplistic viewpoint, the equivalent of just looking at the tip of the iceberg. Seismic shifts in attitudes can happen in response to external events, such as Brexit, or internal changes such as a take-over or change of management. Company culture alters and shifts over time, in response to these changes.

Cultural stereotypes

Understanding the depth of culture is a problem shared by almost all professions, including professional fiction writers! In a neat illustration of how culture runs deep, the Writer’s Circle ‘Cultural Iceberg’ graphic shows how writers can too easily resort to ‘travel guidebook’ stereotypes, focussing on the obvious elements of national character such as the food they eat, the language they speak, or the national dances and music.

However, we all know that not every Italian male paddles a gondola, while eating pizza, drinking prosecco, and singing “O sole mio” to any passing pretty girl. The same could be said of employees; they will not necessarily talk about the company culture in the same way, and their way of expressing it through their work will not be the same across the room, let alone across departments.

cultural-iceberg-writers-circle2

Innovation stereotypes

Equally, it could be said that innovation suffers from stereotypes too. Not every business that enjoys a culture of innovation has to be a shiny new, on-trend start-up with glass offices and staff ‘imagineering’ the future sitting beanbags whilst sipping skinny goat’s milk mochachinos from bamboo cups.

Neither does every innovator have to be a Steve Jobs, James Dyson or Elon Musk. Indeed, by creating a culture of innovation, your business can enable almost any employee to suggest and implement improvements and changes to their own working environment, and beyond.

How we express our culture

The Cultural Iceberg diagram shows how culture is as much a matter of expression as defining elements. The diagram features five different areas of culture that managers need to consider.

  • Communication styles and rules
  • Notions of acceptable behaviour
  • Concepts of fairness, timescales, family roles
  • Attitudes towards authority and moral issues
  • Approaches to major live events and decision-making

Any business owner who has done business abroad will be very aware of the differences in communication styles, from the etiquette of personal space to the nuances of polite conversation.

Equally, they will be aware of the differences in attitudes to courtesy and manners, and will know to avoid any contentious discussions around politics. In the workplace, such cultural differences may not be so apparent, but an homogenised viewpoint should never be assumed to exist.

Breaking the ice on your a culture of innovation

Given that innovation is hard to define, it’s hardly surprising that creating a a culture of innovation can be hard work. As a business, you need to establish:

  • Why you want to innovate
  • How you want it to happen
  • What the benefits are to all your stakeholders, especially your employees

Then, you can focus on the five areas of culture outlined above to make sure that every action, assumption and attitude within the business supports innovation at every point.

Online employee networks

One of the reasons this diagram came to our attention is that it came from an organisation devoted to the written word. With the rise of online employee networks, much of your employee ’conversations’ will in fact be written exchanges, with all the potential for misinterpretations and misunderstandings this involves. You only have to look at public social media to see how a single tweet or comment can be taken the wrong way, and escalate tensions.

Verbal v written communications

Perhaps by considering the ‘hidden’ elements of the Cultural Iceberg before typing, we can help ourselves and our employees have better, clearer online conversations. For example, will a jokey remark work in cold, clear type without the accompanying smile and relaxed body language that informs the listener “I’m being playful”? Probably not (even with an emoticon). However, take that remark into the real world of face to face contact, and it will probably be both acceptable and humourous.

This is particularly important when innovation and ideation involves the submission of ideas to a virtual workspace or network. The process of assessing new ideas may involve written comments, discussions, some sort of rating system and, ultimately, the selection of the best ideas to be taken forward.

The Cultural Iceberg can remind us not to take reactions or assumptions for granted. While some discussion topics may never crop up in a working scenario, such as death, sin, cleanliness or religion, assuming that all your employees hold the same views on these would be foolish. Equally, trying to nail down a ‘company line’ on all the topics shown would both be stifling and ultimately counter-productive.

The pivot point for innovation

Innovation will always be at the pivot point between creating and keeping a cohesive company culture, and being too over-prescriptive. By keeping our eyes, ears and senses open, we as managers can ensure that our employee engagement approaches recognises and embraces the shifting nature of cultural differences, rather than focussing on specifics.

A clear and open company culture will also establish a supportive and positive ‘can do’ environment where your culture of innovation can thrive and flourish.

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