How to Change Innovation Culture the Fast & Viral Way

There are different approaches to facilitating cultural change within an organization in order to promote innovation. Bengt Järrehult argues that the viral change, whereby successful changes are achieved through experimentation and then spread by different groups copying or adopting the change leads to faster and more long-lasting culture change.

More and more companies realize that the most important aspect to consider when pursuing a change towards a more innovative company is to look at the Innovation culture. The question is, how is this done in the “best” way and how do we know which is the most suitable culture for our company? What works for Company A does not necessarily work for Company B. Change to promote innovation is a constant process. Some say that “The only thing that is constant is change.” Hmmmm… I prefer “Everything has changed. Even Change has changed.”  We change all the time. Change is not a one-off situation, it is ongoing and has a new look every day. Let us once again  use metaphors to clarify the situation.

Imagine we have a seabed. Deeply grounded in the bottom sediment there are stones that represent our personal values. These stones are what you and I are made of. All together these values constitute the company culture that rules the place, a culture made by people. Unless there are very hard storms at the water surface, these stones stay in place and do not easily change. From these stones or personal values our personal mindsets slowly stretch up like ropes leading to our personal behaviors, i.e. the buoys floating on the water surface. All our personal behaviors pulled together form the climate, what can be observed, in which we are working and this lays the foundation for a good company performance.

However, I cannot really say what your mindsets are and even less what your values are. This is because the water is often murky and what is visible is what is floating on the surface and what effect that has. The buoys, the different behaviors, are what we see. And what we see we can influence. If we influence things well, this in its turn can have a backward effect and via the mindset ropes change the values in the right direction. If we pull a buoy consistently and hard enough, we sure can move the anchoring stone too.

Just as we have two competing schools in psychology (i.e. those who believe in therapy based on thorough Freudian Psychoanalysis and those who advocate the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) we have a similar split between opinions of what works best in the organizational world. There are those who believe in the Cascading Change whereby we use a strict Top Down approach, resembling what I would call the Tsunami way. However, the remaining effect of a Tsunami is hardly visible after a couple of years and they seldom reoccur at the same place. They are truly one-off happenings. The cascading, tsunami principle also demands that you really know in advance in what way to change. If you are uncertain of what the most suitable innovation culture is for your company, you must allow for experiments and let different groups try out what works best. Success speaks for itself and the obviously successful changes of behaviors of some groups are contagiously adopted by other groups. This is called Viral Change. Viruses mutate all the time, often have fast effects and are not one-off happenings.

One propagator of the “fast & viral way”, is Leandro Herrero, who in his book Viral Change™ talks about three steps;

  1. Describe the characteristics of the current culture.
  2. Describe the changes you would like to see being established.
  3. Identify three behaviors that exactly represent the culture changes you want and promote these behaviors.

Key Takeaways

By primarily focusing on key behaviors we like to see by rewarding them, both in intrinsic and extrinsic ways, we achieve a cultural change faster than by primarily focusing on values and mindsets. When preferred behaviors occur somewhere in the organization (we cannot tell in advance where they will start) we support and promote these new behaviors to expand virally to eventually encompass the whole organization. As three key behaviors for increased innovation to start with I suggest 1) failing often, but cheap and early – hence learning for success, 2) making external collaboration efforts (with external I mean everything outside the own department) and 3) showing responsibility in initiating actions instead of waiting to be told to act.

By Bengt Järrehult

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About the author

Bengt Järrehult is Fellow Scientist Innovation at SCA, a global hygiene products and paper company. He is also adjunct professor and visiting professor resp. at 2 departments of Lund University in Sweden. He is an avid reader of and presenter on the topics of innovation, especially on breakthrough innovation and the psychological hurdles that exist to achieve this, hurdles that we may or may not be aware of. He is of the opinion that most companies more or less know what to do to become more innovative. What they don’t know is what really hinders them from doing these measures…

  • Goran Hydbom

    Always interesting and inspiring reading Bengts articles, thank you!
    True1 1 – but – if the different management levels do not focus to become role models according the decided new behaviors the cultural change will never happen – and the managment level start at the very top
    True 2 – but – all organisations are unique and by addressing them as unique you will very often end up with a mixture of different change philosophies – and, believe me, there are many philosophies out tere pretending to be “the very best one”

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  • Bengt Järrehult

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Göran. It seems I need to clarify what I mean;
    What I have seen with cultural change approaches being done top down in MNCs is that they are so general – in order to fit everybody – that they may loose the credibility. What is needed then is an interpretation of what this means to my little group and here we have the possibility to make things happen ourselves by adopting 3 (three, not more) behaviors that we in my group think is needed the most to accomplish the vision set by top management. By that we change the “microclimate” in that special group in a visual way – also for others to see and be inspired by.
    The Vision is shared by all – but there are various behaviors that are available for different groups to reach that. Here we can experiment and learn from each other

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  • Romualdas Stanenas

    The 3M company has made the changes for designing an innovative cultural community. I am Interested creating a Milwaukee Monthly series of Innovations with the community. Are there any studies sharing the innovative community. Examples of draft projects;
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