We ask…

How might we build a culture of innovation within our organization?

This question dismays us, too.

Where do we start?

Do we create a physical space where innovation is to happen? If so, do we signal that innovation happens nowhere else?

Do we pursue arms-length relationships with start-ups in the hopes that our engagements invigorate us? If so, what is the quid pro quo? Do the attorneys get involved?

Do we put everyone in the middle of an open floor plan and hope for the best: the Crock-Pot school of workplace design? If so, does the local Bose outlet run out of QuietComfort headphones as people seek the peace they need to do thoughtful work?

Wax On, Wax Off

In the movie, The Karate Kid, the “kid” Daniel-san, played by Ralph Macchio, seeks to learn karate from the sensei, Miyagi-san, played by Pat Morita.

Miyagi-san assigns Daniel-san a series of tasks—scrubbing the floors, painting the fence, waxing cars—that seem to have nothing to do with practicing karate. Daniel-san rebels. Miyagi-san explains that the hand motions of the tasks—waxing on, waxing off—mimic the basic forms of karate. Daniel-san has been practicing karate all along. Chastised, Daniel-san recommits himself to Miyagi-san’s instruction.

What about people interested in building a culture of innovation within their organization? Do they, as with Daniel-san, have a way to approach the work without being overwhelmed?

The answer is yes: a culture of innovation starts with a culture of inquiry. If you incubate and foment a culture of inquiry, then a culture of innovation takes root as people naturally challenge themselves with resolving the outcomes and the implications of their questions.

A culture of inquiry starts with posing a basic question, again and again: What question, were we to pursue it together, might lead to authentic breakthroughs (relative to the subject at hand)?

Readers, after having put into practice the question formation methodology outlined in Great Question! Generating Effective Questions for Successful Outcomes, ask, “How are we doing?”

That is, are we as an organization on the path to building a culture of inquiry that, in turn, leads us to a culture of innovation, one effective question after another? Have we waxed enough Buicks?

Seven-Question Self-Assessment on a Culture of Inquiry

The following self-assessment (figure 1) helps you explore the question of where you stand, today. The results can serve as a rich source of dialogue among your peers who have expressed an interest in building a culture of innovation. Imagine, for example, creating a community of practice around the art and science of question formation. The Likert scale can help you see changes over time, were you to give the self-assessment on a regular basis.

Image 1: Self-assessment on a Culture of Inquiry


Question 1: The people with whom I work most closely reserve time during the week to explore the critical question worth pursuing.

Where we spend time shows what we value. People who value a culture of inquiry make time for questions.

Question 2: The people with whom I work most closely assign high value to questions that, if they were to pursue them together, might lead to authentic breakthroughs.

A focus on breakthrough questions—the “what ifs?”—indicates a zest for inquiry: a promising sign.

Question 3: The people with whom I work most closely assign high value to their peers who help them define the critical question worth pursuing.

Some people excel at question formation. If people with a talent for posing the questions that reflect the group’s intent are well received, as opposed to tolerated or opposed, then that’s a good sign.

Question 4: The people with whom I work most closely talk about the art and science of question formation: how best to get at the critical question worth pursuing.

Part of pursuing any trade craft is “talking shop” amongst fellow enthusiasts.

Question 5: The people with whom I work most closely have wasted resources or missed an opportunity because they did not, in hindsight, have a shared understanding of the critical question worth pursuing.

Failure teaches us if we are prepared to learn its lessons. A post mortem might lead to the epiphany that the group is not good at asking questions. Does the group sense the opportunity cost?

Question 6: The people with whom I work most closely are mindful about posing questions, as opposed to making declarative statements, whilst pursuing innovation.

Questions take courage in environments where people perceive that the expression of subject matter expertise is valued above all else. Who gets rewarded in the organization? The people with a ready answer at hand? Or the people willing and able to take a step back and verbalize the question?

Question 7: My company as a whole embraces a culture of inquiry as a means of building a culture of innovation.

Survey design suggests leaving the summation question for the end. This self-assessment follows this guidance with the seventh, broader wrap-up question. Where are we today?

Closing Thoughts

A culture of innovation is the intermediate end, not the means, that leads ultimately to the associate engagement that results in increases in firm-wide profitability.

How we achieve a culture of innovation starts with our embrace of the leadership mindset. We are here to help people realize their potential for leadership through their pursuits. Embracing this mindset means we help people form and phrase the critical questions that are important to them and to the group. These go-for-the-jugular questions energize the participants. They need little if any motivation to pursue their questions to resolution.

It’s in that pursuit, in whatever form it takes, that we see the first visible signs of a culture of innovation.

The trick—the waxing on, the waxing off—to getting there is to not pursue a culture of innovation, heads-on. Doing so confounds people. The way forward seems uncertain. Instead, building and developing a love of questions, along with a discipline around their pursuit, leads to a culture of inquiry. Over time the pursuit leads to innovation: the development of things that offer their intended user relative advantage over their current state of affairs.

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He helps organizations such as The Estee Lauder Companies, Jarden Corporation, Johnson & Johnson, The Procter & Gamble Company, and Ryder System navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation. Doug develops approaches, creates forums, and structures engagements whereby people can convene to explore the critical questions facing the enterprise. He helps people assign economic value to the ideas and to the collaboration that result. As an author, Doug explores ways in which people can apply the practice of collaborative innovation in his series Innovation Architecture: A New Blueprint for Engaging People through Collaborative Innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management. Doug serves on the board of advisors for Frost & Sullivan’s Global community of Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GIL). Today, Doug works as senior practice leader at social innovation company Spigit, where he consults with a range of clients. He focuses on helping them realize their potential for leadership by applying the practice of collaborative innovation.

Copyright © Doug Collins 2016
Innovation Architecture® is a registered trademark.