Three hidden ways your corporate culture inhibits innovation – (Part 1: Strategy)

Oodi, Helsinki Finland

Published on February 20, 2020

Virtually all companies now claim to have a culture of innovation, yet they often fail to recognize disconnects between the performance of teams and overall governing corporate culture that may be dampening or even distorting innovation.  Seeing these invisible cultural disconnects is similar to seeing the invisible biological disconnects that are revealed in a functional MRI. When the driving action of innovation teams is going on beneath the surface, it remains invisible, unspeakable and therefore unmanaged.

My work with teams aspiring to best-in-class innovation has revealed the nature of these disconnects. This reveal only occurs as you go deep into the real processes that produce innovation. These deep processes are more fundamental than whatever innovation framework is consciously adopted. There are many excellent, research-validated innovation frameworks to choose from but they almost to the fault fail to divulge this deeper dimension.

Although organizational culture comprises a wide variety of factors, I believe three of them – #strategy, #metrics, and #rewards – warrant closer scrutiny when the goal is to establish a “culture of innovation”. While these three factors are regularly deliberated, discussed and decided upon by the senior leadership teams, critical blind spots remain. Therefore, it is more likely that leadership creates innovation-inhibiting conditions by agreeing to:

1. An innovation strategy that is not rooted in human experience,

2. Irrelevant or distracting innovation metrics, and

3. A reward system that doesn’t actually reward the deeper human needs.

Having the courage to go deeper into the realm of “humanness” creates an innovation force multiplier and can dramatically improve the successful innovation culture. Here is what you can do about the first one (strategy):

  1. Connect your innovation strategy to the human experience

Business strategies are only as good as their execution. As long as the innovation strategies fail to consider the most crucial element, the human experience of emotional, feeling human beings, execution will be less than optimal. Innovative results are outcomes of creative thought and collaboration – wildly human experiences that consist of emotional and relational elements. It is an innovation leader’s job to optimize the emotional energy towards great novel solutions. Although many companies offer growth mindset or emotional intelligence training for their employees, the value of these trainings is lost when the key messages are left out of the strategy conversations within the leadership team. Developing ways to make emotional, relational and social intelligence embedded into the fabric of the culture begins by baking them into strategic planning conversations.

In order to make your innovation strategy more human-centric, you must begin with an understanding of human nature: especially, how people feel. As a leader of a team charged with innovation, you do it by connecting, listening, exploring questions together, creating trust and psychological safety. This begins by recognizing that we bring our whole selves to work, emotions and all.

Emotions = Energy in Motion

Far too long in organizational settings, we have pretended that workers are Spock-like parts of enterprise production machinery. However, human emotions cannot be left at home or eliminated because they are the link between our thoughts and ideas and actions. Just think of the last time when you witnessed an outburst of your team member and its impact on personal relationships on the team. While tensions between people may be invisible and under the surface, they are absolutely felt. This linking role of emotions is similar to the microvessel circulatory network of human bodies that carries 74% of our blood while being barely recognizable compared to more visible arteries and veins. Emotions are the life-blood of creative human problem-solving.

Emotions are an integral part of our thinking and reasoning processes. Despite the fact that at least some 34,000 emotions have been discovered and our emotional vulnerability is fundamental to our humanity, most of us express our feelings with a very limited range of emotion words (e.g. happy or angry). Moreover, according to research, most of us operate at a nine-year old’s emotional level. This can have dramatic consequences at work and under pressure. It pays to become well-versed in emotions since each emotion entails information and it can serve a specific purpose; for example, feeling doubt can help us prepare better, or feeling curiosity and playfulness can drive us to deeper exploration.

Openly exploring the information emotions carry with the team can help develop better decisions. There is nothing wrong with developing emotional literacy (finding words for what people feel) at work.  Since speaking about our inner landscape at work tends to be lacking, you can take these four steps to increase your consciousness about your emotions:

  1. Notice what you are feeling.
  2. Name what you are feeling.
  3. Acknowledge the purpose of that feeling.
  4. Navigate the feelings by knowing your triggers, learning to anticipate, shift your moods and emotions by intentionally choosing what you feel.

The creative minds in your team are best approached with open-minded curiosity. You might want to open team conversations about this by asking:  How does our innovation strategy take into consideration the ways people feel about decisions that affect them? In what ways does our innovation strategy take into consideration the emotional and relational human beings who are executing the strategy?

Just as you make sure you have built your strategy based on the market and financial data, make sure you include some data about the emotional energy of your team.  Here are some questions you can use to begin the exploration:

Vision: does it elicit a positive emotional connection to it in your team members?

Mission: do your team members feel it is meaningful for them to contribute to it?

Values: is there an alignment between the personal values and the core team values?

Goals: do they unleash energy in your team members that fuels performance and productivity?

Processes and systems: do your team members feel respected and supportive for the team members so that they can “give their best”?

While this might sound simple, it is not easy. It is like learning a new language: emotional literacy opens up a new deeper and multidirectional universe where innovation thrives when more creativity is unleashed.

OK, hold that thought. I will be writing more on “innovation metrics that work” next week.


What propels me to think and write about innovation leadership is the existential crisis of our life on Earth. My hope is to see as many organizations as possible to be successful in innovating solutions to the world’s most wicked problems. I want every team who has the will, to be innovative and turn that will into life-enhancing solutions that we all benefit from.

Happy to learn your thoughts – please comment below.

I work with companies who care about maximizing their positive impact on the planet and recognize that innovation is the main driver to maintain growth and profitable relevance.

I help companies expand their approach to innovation from focusing on just technological solutions to creating an environment that unleashes an organization’s capacity and human potential to innovate.  

I do this by assessing and applying leadership psychology, interpersonal dynamics, and skills that deepen the innovation process.