Necessity Isn’t the Mother of Invention – Culture Is

Necessity once was thought to be the mother of invention. Why? Because it makes us want to innovate – or actually, need to innovate. However, most of us are already motivated. As workers in the Age of Ideas, we love to innovate, right? What we need is an environment where innovation comes naturally, where there are no unnatural blocks to our urge to create.

Organizationally speaking, our environment is the organization’s culture – an all-pervasive force that shapes our individual expectations, actions, interpretations and responses to events. There are certain mandates in the culture that make it more natural for members of the organization to innovate. Typically, when you see a list of these, it includes things like trust, communication and risk taking. While those are all valid, they’re a little too abstract to be readily used in leading an organization. Instead, here are three simple mandates that can help you create an environment that supports innovation.


Have you ever been in one of those meetings where people aren’t really talking to one another and the discussion goes around in circles?

I was recently working with the executive team of a technology start-up – very smart guys. They wanted to speed up their decision making process. During an offsite, a strategic issue came up. I could tell immediately that the discussion was one of those circular muddles. After about ten minutes, I asked them how much of what they had just heard was “new news” – information that hadn’t been discussed before in this group. The answer? About ten percent! Imagine how much time they were wasting if ninety percent of what they were discussing was old news!

I re-started the discussion by asking them to tell me only the known facts. A team member would put out a fact. I would ask others if it was really a fact. Some pretty wild debates ensued. After nearly thirty minutes of this discussion, the team said they finally understood why they had been discussing this issue for three months! They were now ready to move forward.

The magic? Only that I required them to distinguish between facts, assumptions, opinions and unknowns. Not so complicated, but very important. They were now willing and able to get caught with their assumptions down. And they had learned that in doing so, they were better able to understand one another’s thinking and come to decisions that made sense.

Getting caught with your assumptions down enables lively and genuine conversations instead of those circular muddles. These conversations are key to innovation.


What is “outside” and what is “inside” depends on your perspective. If you’re in fifth grade, everyone in the fourth grade is “outside.” But if you’re the principal, all of the students are “inside.” Who is “outside” your organization and needs to be brought in? Customers, suppliers, community partners and anyone else who is critical to your success.

These stakeholders are not part of your formal organization. And no doubt you have mechanisms for communicating with them, gathering data from them, and solving their problems. That’s good but not good enough if you want an innovative culture. If you’re like most leaders, your “default setting” for these folks is “outside” of processes such as strategic planning, designing systems and processes and establishing metrics.

Flip it! Make the default setting “inside” – assume that key stakeholders will play an active role in critical business processes. Instead of having to make a case for bringing them in, ask your team to make a case for when they need to be left out.

By thinking outside in, you’ll increase the likelihood for innovative ideas many times over.


You already know that you can’t be the expert at everything. Technology is too complex and moves too fast to make that possible. Whatever your position, whatever your field there are likely folks on your team who can add to your expertise. Especially now that you know that your “team” includes external stakeholders like customers and users. Imagine what they know that you should know!

How do you create a culture where everyone can contribute her expertise fully? Where gaps in knowledge are considered normal, not a “problem” but a routine part of exploring solutions. The most powerful single thing a leader can do in this arena is to say “I don’t know.” If the leader feels comfortable acknowledging that he doesn’t have all the answers, others will begin to assume it’s ok for them to not know. And when it’s ok to not know, we can identify and fill gaps in our knowledge.

Often we don’t acknowledge what we don’t know for fear of seeming ignorant or “not up to the job.” It can feel risky to acknowledge what we lack. Here’s the catch – trust is a risk game and the leader must ante up first.

So, leader, it’s your job to be the first to set the norm of acknowledging what you don’t know and asking for others’ ideas, input and information. When you do that, everyone can contribute without fear of stepping on someone’s toes. Knowledge flows freely without getting stuck in the eddies of invulnerability. And innovation thrives!


Now here’s the hard part. You can’t dictate any part of your culture. An important part of your role as a leader in the organization (formal or informal) is to help foster the development of these mandates in your culture. How do you do that?

First, you set an example. You might, for example, be the first one on the team to say, “I don’t know.” Or you might notice assumptions the group may be taking as facts and call the group’s attention to it.

Second, find opportunities for a brief explanation of why you took the action you did. For example, if you invite a partner to a meeting, be sure your whole team understands that this isn’t an isolated incident but part of how you see your task and your organization.

Third, set the rumor mill on the right track. Every culture has its stories and its heroes. Be on the lookout for places where these new behaviors have created a positive outcome. Then get the story told over and over at the “water cooler.”

If you do these things, you can shape your organization’s culture. It won’t happen overnight – culture change happens slowly, especially in large organizations. But over time the culture will shift and you will have discovered a way to change your environment to breed innovation and success.