A Culture of Innovation: What do we Permit? — What do we Promote? — What do we Punish?

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“Culture is the sum of what you permit and what you promote.” — Richard Fagerlin (Innovation Show EP 119)

In 1951, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments on conformity. Groups of eight participants took part in a simple task. All but one participant were party to this experiment. The true focus of the study was to track how the chosen subject would react to the behaviour of the other seven (the majority).

There were sets of two cards shown to all eight participants. One card had one line on it, while the other card had three lines labelled “A”, “B”, and “C” (as per below).

One of the “A”, “B”, “C” lines were the same length as the one on the first card. The other two lines were very clearly longer or shorter. The task was to choose which one matched.

To ensure we are on the same page, the answer below would be C.


Seven participants were coached on how to behave to the remaining participant or “subject”. The seven would give the correct response for an extended period and on others an incorrect answer. The group of eight was seated so that the subject always responded last.

The experiment aimed to measure how many subjects would change their answer to conform to the responses of the seven collaborators, despite it being wrong.

A sizeable minority of responses conformed to the seven collaborator’s (incorrect) answer (a total of 36.8 percent).

The subjects were interviewed after the study and the real aim of the study was revealed to them. The subjects said that often they were “just going along” because they did not want to stand out from the crowd

As Asch’s study shows many people will conform more to a unanimous group, even if that group is clearly wrong. They will just go along with it to avoid going against the grain.


Behaviourism is a learning theory that assumes learners are essentially passive, responding only to environmental stimuli through positive and negative reinforcement. Behaviour theorists believe we start off as a blank slate (tabula rasa) and we learn what is right or wrong by observing others closest to us.

I share this study and its results to highlight how it can be very difficult to be the outlier. The outlier or the gainsayer is often reviled, ostracised or ejected from a group. Therefore, change can only really come if the majority accept the change. The majority will be more likely to accept the change if the leader champions the change.

Shadow of the Leader

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“Every great institution is the lengthened shadow of a single (wo)man. His (Her) character determines the character of the organisation.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Shadow of the Leader is a phrase used to describe the business phenomenon where people in a position of authority, through organisational habits, beliefs and values can influence the culture of those around them. This influence can be good or bad. In order to get ahead in an organisation, in order to fit in, employees take cues from their leader.

This phenomenon is of vital importance in the field of innovation and organisational change. It is common amongst business leaders today to issue a directive that the business must innovate. The same leader must realise that those words mean nothing without a shift in behaviour by the leader herself. What the leader permits, promotes and punishes sets the tone.

What Do We Permit, Promote and Punish


When we point the finger, we must always remember there are three fingers pointing back at us.

When a child drops their first “F-bomb”, most parents embarrassingly realise that the child must have learned it from the parent. Likewise, as a leader, if your organisation is not displaying behaviours synonymous with innovation, you must question how your style and your structures are permitting, promoting or punishing such behaviours.

So how can you lead a culture of innovation?

This is the topic discussed on this week’s innovation show with Innosight partner and author of “The Little Black Book of Innovation” Scott D. Anthony. Scott tells us the ultimate goal is that behaviours of innovation disappear and become habits of innovation. This does not mean that your people need to be developing the next breakthrough product. It does mean that your people should have the radar on for opportunities to innovate everywhere. This can simply mean better processes, procedures and protocols.

While many organisations talk the talk of innovation, true change only happens when they walk the talk of innovation. As humans, we seek pleasure and avoid pain. In organisations this means we walk towards behaviours that reward us and we avoid behaviours that punish us. Imagine that you ask your people to innovate, they gather all available data, believe their hypothesis is correct and launch an experiment. It fails. How do you react? This is where innovation can often fall down. Many leaders will punish the team for failing, this may come in the form of abandoning the exploratory project or discontinuation of such experiments. And that is exactly where the innovation stops.

To foster a culture of innovation the team must be rewarded for their endeavour, they displayed an attitude of innovation. If the fear of retribution for a failed experiment overhangs the project, like a dark shadow, the team will be limited in their thinking. Different parts of their brain will be activated and they will not feel the psychological safety to dream big. Celebrating the effort, learning from the false hypotheses and trying again on a consistent (and not necessarily large scale or high cost) basis sets your organisation on the correct course to a culture of innovation.

If everyone in the organisation is attuned to a frequency of innovation, they will identify bigger areas to innovate. Your customer success team will turn problems into solutions. Your regulation team who usually spot the blockages will start to spot the openings.

When your people start to innovate it will be as a result of what behaviours you permit and what behaviours you promote.


For more on this type of thinking and a great chat about Innovation join long-time innovation expert and Senior Partner with Innosight, Scott D. Anthony on this week’s innovation show.

We talk about his early book “The Little Black Book of Innovation” and we discuss:

  • Why Innovation is so hard
  • The definition of Innovation
  • Innovation in the eye of the beholder
  • Living at the Intersections
  • Heroes of Innovation
  • Innovation Mindsets
  • Customer-First Mindset
  • The 7 Deadly Sins of Innovation
  • Sustaining Innovation
  • Psychological Safety
  • Bridging the gap between the established business and the emergent concept
  • The language an innovator should use
  • The Innovators Pledge

Have a listen:

Web http://bit.ly/2FwsOJw

Soundcloud https://lnkd.in/gBbTTuF

Spotify http://spoti.fi/2rXnAF4

iTunes https://apple.co/2gFvFbO

Tunein http://bit.ly/2rRwDad

iHeart http://bit.ly/2E4fhfl

More about Scott here: www.innosight.com

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