Category: innovation facilitation

Innovative Research: How Innovation Varies Across Countries & Cultures

Have you ever wondered how different cultures view innovation? Why are some countries more willing to adopt new advances while others fight to keep old systems in place? In today’s article, we’ll be taking a look at two innovative research studies that reveal the impact of culture on people’s ability to innovate.  We’ll also show you how to use this information to create a work environment conducive to innovation. To begin, let’s jump right in to discuss how a country’s culture affects the early stages of innovation.

What Affects the Early Stages of Innovation?

In a study on innovation in European countries, innovation researchers wanted to see if understanding different national cultures could help them predict certain behavioral patterns when it came to initiating innovation [*]. To do this, they categorized cultures using four dimensions –– power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism-collectivism, and masculinity-femininity — and then tested the relationship between each dimension and innovation. Today, we’ll concentrate on the first two dimensions: power distance and uncertainty avoidance.


Power Distance Measures: Just How Much Power Lies in the Hierarchical Structure


Cultures with large power-distance measures are those with formal rules and a centralized decision-making system. These societies keep information-sharing to a select few — only those in power, know the master plan and everyone else remains in the dark. On the other hand, small power-distance cultures don’t rely so heavily on a rigid chain of command. There’s free-flowing communication between hierarchical levels. Both of these traits help foster an environment where creative thoughts and ideas can flourish, which may ultimately lead to breakthroughs. So, which culture do you think does better in the initiation phase of innovation…the one with small or large power distance? If you guessed small power distance cultures… you are correct! Countries in this category include the UK, USA, Germany, the Netherlands, and Nordic countries[*].

This innovative research shows that high power distance cultures, such as Belgium, France, Poland, and Portugal, may be unknowingly inhibiting their innovation efforts due to this trait. If people are more likely to feel confined and afraid to come up with new ideas for fear of disapproval, they won’t even try. This strategy will severely limit innovation initiation, according to the study. The next dimension may also greatly impact the early stages of innovation.


Uncertainty Avoidance in Innovative Research: Whether Tense Situations are Avoided or Tolerated

You may not think there’s a connection between uncertainty avoidance and innovation, but there is according to the research. See, cultures with high uncertainty avoidance adopt an attitude of “What’s different is dangerous.” People are encouraged to follow the rules to a T — without ever stepping out of line. When this type of environment is created, you’ll often see a workforce that’s unmotivated to think creatively. As a result, they may struggle to come up with new ideas and innovative solutions to existing problems.  Not only that, your team may be much more resistant to change. And as you can imagine, this way of thinking can negatively impact your innovation efforts. On the other hand, a low uncertainty avoidance culture constantly revises rules and makes allowances to bend existing ones, given the right circumstances. Cultures that rank low on this dimension also expect conflict and see it as just another part of life. Ambiguous situations are viewed the same way — since they’re inevitable, you must always be ready to adjust your plan and adapt accordingly, two things that work well when it comes to innovation. Now before we dive into the specific traits shown by innovative cultures, it’s important to understand a few fundamental findings first:

“Existing cultural conditions determine whether, when, how and in what form new innovation will be adopted,” as our next study shows[*].

Let’s explore this idea next.


Cultural Impacts on Innovation

Which characteristics do cultures with high innovation rank well on?

Researchers discovered that there’s a greater acceptance of innovation when the foundation is already ingrained in the culture.  For cultures built on long-standing traditions, innovation may seem as if it’s going against the societal norms that have been passed down for generations. Therefore, it may not be as well-received or encouraged. Yet, researchers discovered, and research revealed, that when societies are willing to take traditions and adjust them to fit modern times, innovation is much more likely to happen. To that end, there’s one more factor that may contribute to fostering an innovative culture: whether people believe they can make an impact.

Cultural or organizational “class systems” can become like shackles — with people unable to move and think freely.

And when applied to the work environment, it’s virtually impossible to motivate your team or community to work at their potential (or, as often required to innovate, to exceed their potential) when they don’t see their hard work paying off in some regard.

“Most people work in the hope of reward,” and if they don’t see any insight, they’ll be less inclined to work hard. People need to feel like they can make a difference and that their ideas are not only heard but also used whenever possible. And they need to do this in an environment that fosters community and relationships.

For an innovative culture to flourish and thrive, the scientists learned, this form of social capital is needed.

Cultures that adopt these characteristics, plus the ones listed below, are considered high innovators[*]:

  • Focus on higher Individualism
  • More inclined to take risks
  • Willingness to accept and adapt to change
  • Future-focused
  • Low on Power/Status/Hierarchy (Low Power Distance)
  • Weak Uncertainty Avoidance
  • Open to new ideas and information
  • Willingness to travel frequently
  • Positive attitude towards science
  • Emphasis on higher education and creating a highly-educated society
  • Early adopters

How You Can Apply These Findings to Your Workplace

Now, you can consider how your business might rank in terms of these cultural tendencies.

For example, when it comes to scoring your company’s power distance, which statement do you agree with the most?

  • Power and information-sharing stem from the top of the organization. Only high-level employees have the ability to initiate change and innovation (high power distance).
  • Everyone on the team is heard equally and ideas are frequently exchanged and discussed fairly (low power distance).

If you want to build an innovative environment, you need to shift towards the cooperative, transparent nature shown by low power-distance cultures. In this type of organization,  everyone on the team knows what’s going on and can freely add their input without fear.

What about uncertainty avoidance?

Innovative cultures are willing to deviate from strict rules and guidelines whenever necessary. So, your approach should also be one that easily adapts to new situations and changing times. By setting up this kind of environment, you’ll foster innovative ideas, and you’ll create a motivated workforce at the same time. 

Now that you understand how culture can impact innovation efforts, check out this guide to learn more about the most common mistakes companies make when it comes to organizational innovation.

Useful Lessons to Learn from an Innovation Facilitation Session

Published on: November 1, 2017 в 9:58 am


Categories: innovation,innovation facilitation

Several years ago…

I facilitated a New Product Development workshop (innovation facilitation session) at a large corporation in the American Midwest.  At our insistence, a Sales Manager was added to the team.  Why did his presence require an effort? Pulling a sales rep from his/her daily toil is not an easy task, but we insisted their presence is crucial in a product development effort.

As expected, this extremely energetic, intelligent and experienced Sales Manager, who we shall call Dale, was the soul of the innovation facilitation session. He readily shared his understanding of the company’s clients, their needs, wants, fears and motivations. He also possessed – pardon the stereotype – the classic sales-champion talent for engaging his colleagues in entertaining conversation, and generally spreading around an excellent vibe, telling jokes and recounting sales-battle stories where relevant.

So, it isn’t surprising that we started a bit of back-and-forth good spirited banter. At some point, Dale came up with an idea. And when another colleague pointed out an obvious flaw, Dale immediately pivoted, without losing a second, and came up with an improved version. “That reminds me of a joke,” I said to Dale and the team, and proceeded to tell it:

A Joke or a Misunderstanding?


One guy, call him Dale, in my home town of Tel Aviv, applies for a job in a supermarket. After a short conversation, the manager says to Dale: “There’s a customer, let’s see how you assist him.”  Dale walks over and the customer hands him a watermelon that he had just picked up from the shelf and asks to buy only half of it. Dale takes the watermelon, walks over to the manager, and says: “Some idiot asked for half of this watermelon.” The manager, in distress, tries to signal to Dale that the customer had walked behind him and heard Dale’s words. Dale immediately understands, and completes the sentence: “…and this gentleman here, would like the other half.”


watermelon innovation facilitation

Laughter, laughter, but the joke doesn’t end here…


The manager is really impressed with Dale’s agility and ability and says: “Listen, Dale, that was impressive. How would you like the job of manager of our store in Jaffa?” “Jaffa?” Dale says. “They say everyone there is either a prostitute or a soccer player.” The manager is a bit taken aback and says “Actually, my sister is from Jaffa.” “Which team does she play on?” answers Dale without a second’s hesitation.

Big laughter in the room, but I detect some ambivalence and unease. Was it my mention of the word “prostitutes” (not sure I would dare repeat it nowadays in a corporate setting)? No. Something else, which I discovered only at the end of the day when the two project owners invite me to dinner. One detail I failed to mention: Dale (the real one, not the joke character) was African-American. And to my utter surprise, that evening I learned that “watermelon” has a special connotation in this context. From Wikipedia: “Watermelons have been viewed as a major symbol in the iconography of racism in the United States since as early as the nineteenth century.”

First thing I did the next morning was, of course, have a conversation with Dale. He had noticed obviously in the innovation facilitation session, but he assured me he had no doubt whatsoever that I had been ignorant of the context and connotations, so he was not offended in any way. He did feel uncomfortable though with his colleagues’ looks and concern. He knew it was nonsense. They knew it was nonsense.

So why the unease? A hard loop to get out of, but, as often happens in the corporate context, we had a task to accomplish which didn’t leave time for brooding. We went back into the room, and I shared with the group that my blunder had been pointed out to me.  I was using my privilege as an ignorant outsider to point out the absurdity of it all. The ice was then broken, and we jumped back into the work.

Now that you’ve read about a pitfall that can happen in an innovation facilitation session, check out how you can overcome your innovation challenges.

3 Useful Lessons from Innovation Facilitation Sessions that Went Wrong

Published on: September 27, 2017 в 10:38 am


Categories: innovation,innovation facilitation

Тags: ,

We’ve all been at meetings, or in an innovation facilitation, in which we couldn’t wait for someone to stop talking. Some may say that in an innovation facilitation session any contribution to the discussion is helpful. But what happens if you are the one facilitating the meeting?


3 lessons I learned the hard way, during an innovation facilitation

As an innovation facilitator for more than 20 years, I put forth considerable effort to give each participant the chance to express herself/himself throughout the discussion. Sometimes, though, there is a pressing need to achieve quick results, and hearing out the ramblings of someone who is thinking out loud or the lengthy suggestion of a participant whose opinion doesn’t really count much in the organization, doesn’t seem to be the best use of the team’s time.

Still, from an ethical point of view, each voice is valuable, and practically speaking, it is often the reticent engineer from R&D or the shy lawyer from Legal who throw in the comment that swings the entire discussion towards a new and fruitful direction.

Given the compelling arguments – both moral and practical – I tend to monitor discussions attentively to ensure everybody gets a fair chance to contribute, regardless of their ability to wrestle for air time. Imagine my surprise then, when I learned that within a single month, I managed to offend two participants, in two separate workshops, who both felt I had deliberately avoided allowing them the opportunity to contribute to the innovation facilitation discussion.

In the first case, the participant actually got up and left the room. Although a somewhat dramatic and unpleasant moment ensued, it thankfully indicated that I had a serious problem, which I was able to deal with in the next break.

In the other case, I only learned about my mistake in the evening, from the process owners to whom my victim had complained. Luckily, we had an additional workshop session the next day, which allowed me to have a clearing-the-air conversation the next morning, before the workshop started. This, however, raised a nagging thought: I wondered how many other offended participants I had left behind throughout my 22 years of facilitation, without even noticing or discovering it, even after the fact.


My immediate learnings from these two traumatic experiences:


As an innovation facilitator, you have a commitment to the process owners: achieve results! But you also have a contract with the participants: honoring the time and brain power they have put in your hands. They must all be given a chance to express themselves.

  1. Don’t assume that verbose participants  in an innovation facilitation are necessarily content with their allotted time. They might not understand your “global” fair-time-allocation considerations. He may have talked more than his share already, but he has a great idea now that he wants to communicate, and therefore no patience to hear what lesser minds wish to offer.

2. Use break times and facilitation cues to manage both reticent and vocal participants.

Read about the innovation facilitation session in which I offended my best participant on racist grounds (or not?), and some tips on how to manage the balance between participants’ motivation to speak and their potential contribution to the discussion.

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