The 7 Principles of Highly Effective Innovation Culture Change Programs (Part 2)

Nothing is more constant than change. Furthermore, the speed of change is accelerating. So for instance, the global knowledge is growing exponentially, disruptive megatrends (e.g. Internet Of Things, urbanization, demographic shifts) are shaping the innovation agendas and new approaches for capturing value by innovation (e.g. Business Model Innovation, Design Thinking) are becoming mainstream. Thus, new realities for innovation management are emerging and firms are forced to change their innovation management ever faster.

One might assume that under the constant pressure to change firms have achieved a great deal of excellence in running corporate change initiatives. However, quite the opposite is true. A large study from 2013 showed that only 1 in 2 major change programs succeed.

This is the second part of a 2-part article series (read part 1 here), in which innovation-3’s Frank Mattes shares his deep experience in designing and implementing innovation culture change initiatives. You will find ideas and inspiration about how your firm can increase the chances for success in changing innovation culture.

Know exactly where you want to go to

In Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in wonderland”, the cat answers Alice’s question on which way she should take by saying “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” This is also true for innovation culture change. Too many innovation culture change programs are set up with fuzzy goals such as e.g. “We need to be more open in our innovation” or “we need to share information better” and/or without considering the inter-connections between the culture and the other four cornerstones of innovation management.

A great part of success in innovation culture change programs depends on clearly defining the desired innovation culture (in particular, how it manifests in in patterns of behavior, of thinking and deciding) and on aligning the interconnected cornerstones with the desired culture. An exclusive focus on “people issues” has only limited chances for success – no matter how much resources and energy you spend on town hall meetings, awareness workshops, communication activities, manager’s talk sheets, mugs carrying the slogan of the change program, etc.

Don’t fight existing culture – Draw energy from it

Joachim von Heimburg recently pointed out that behavior and resistance to change are hardwired in our brains. Yet too many innovation culture change programs have an implicit assumption that “culture A” (defined by patterns of behavior, of thinking and deciding) needs to be replaced by “culture B”.

If this assumption is the underlying mindset of the change program, chances for success are limited. This is because the existing innovation culture is the result of decisions made – some of them consciously, some of them unconsciously – and from the patterns of behavior, thinking and deciding that the key people of the organization infused. One will not find the energy for change by considering innovation culture as a legacy of the past, by focusing too much on content issues (such as more openness and collaboration) or by overlooking the fact that people have strong emotional ties to the existing culture (“the way we do things around here”). Rather one will find open or sublime energy against change.

Seasoned change managers are not trying to change the culture itself, they draw emotional energy from it.

The chances for success are rising if one makes the most of the existing innovation culture. Seasoned change managers are not trying to change the culture itself, they draw emotional energy from it. In order to tap into this emotional energy, change managers need to look for the elements of the culture and the key influencing factors (see above) that are already aligned to the change, bring them to the foreground, reinforce them, provide recognition to the pioneers and attract the attention of the people who will be affected by the change.

Establish new mental models by “acting your way into thinking”

There are two views on how this emotional energy can be opened up. The first one is built on the paradigm “Think your way into acting.” It assumes that if one provide compelling reasons and convincing proof points via workshops, trainings, management discussions, etc. then the emotional energy will materialize.

In our view, this approach is not productive. People are overwhelmed by the increasing complexity and speed of their business and by the constant stream of change initiatives. Therefore, rational objectives such as “we open up our innovation” or “we will become the global role model for information sharing in R&D” are fine as far as they go. However, people that are supposed to collaborate will not start collaborating because the lines on the chart show they are supposed to do so or because they have spent two days in an awareness workshop.

We have found that the emotional energy can only be built up by making the rational and the emotional case at the same time. In our experience, people respond to calls to action if their hearts and their minds are engaged at the same time. Since the vast majority of people are tied to the existing culture, the emotional case can only be made by going step-by-step – not by making a big leap into unfamiliar territory.

So in our experience, the second view on how to build up emotional energy saying “Act your way into thinking” is more productive. In practice this means to start by defining a critical few patterns of behaving, thinking and deciding that will be essential to the success of the initiative, by aligning the most important aspects of the other cornerstones of innovation management and by running everyday innovation business with these patterns front and center.

This obviously includes senior management. Senior leaders must visibly model these new patterns themselves right from the start – because employees will build up trust in real and sustainable change only when they see it happening at the top of the company.

Arrange management alignment

It is necessary for success in innovation culture programs to engage employees by “acting your way into thinking”. However, this is not sufficient. All successful innovation culture change management initiatives start at the top and include a committed and well-aligned group of senior managers strongly supported by a top management sponsor.

Unfortunately, this alignment can’t be taken for granted (and is therefore a key dimension in our “Health Check”, see above). If one asks a group of senior managers to prepare a presentation on the case for change, one will often find that there is a general agreement on case for change – but very often views on what this means in practice, which way to go or which first concrete steps should be taken will be all over the map.

So some work must be done to ensure management alignment. Although this cuts severely into the precious time of senior and middle management, it is absolutely mandatory. Failing to have an aligned view drastically limits the chances for success in the innovation culture change initiative.

Developing these answers usually can be done in 2-3 workshops. Senior and middle managers in these workshops have to listen closely to their colleagues, weigh conflicting points of view and come up with a common view that in many cases is not just some sort of compromise on the least common denominator but rather a best solution.

Frequently one finds that this exercise has a valuable side effect: If a management team goes through this process, the team becomes more collaborative and committed, uses the same language and builds up confidence that they could cascade the plan to other levels of the hierarchy.

Scale up excellence by provide spaces for learning

Almost certainly, your firm has a pocket or two where people are already living the target culture.

Almost certainly, your firm has a pocket or two where people are already living the target culture. The problem is that these are just isolated pockets. To paraphrase the famous folk singer Pete Seeger, “Sometimes the only thing wrong with it is there isn’t enough of it.” So if your firm has a bit of excellence in the target culture, a pocket of excellence, how do you spread and scale it?

Recent research done in a multitude of settings – such as e.g. growing Google, opening 180 highly standardized schools for poor children in Africa and spreading practices for preventing infections to over 3000 hospitals – confirmed our view that sustainability in innovation culture change requires spreading a shared mindset that guides how people think, behave and decide.

Especially in cases of fast and effective scaling, the teams that guided these efforts often slowed down at key junctures and went into “learning spaces” to think about what they are doing, what works and what doesn’t and to develop true excellence – so they could move faster later.

Learning spaces not only provide the opportunity for people – in particular the frontline people – to emotionally engage with the intended change and to add value to the thinking and the experiences made along the way. Learning spaces are excellent spots to engage the group of people whose power is more informal and is related to their expertise, to the breadth of their network, or to personal qualities. Usually these people are great at motivating others and inspiring them to take pride in their work, they are the go-to people and invaluable change or culture ambassadors.

There is a broad variety of effective and efficient formats available that provide the learning spaces. We have found the following to be productive:

  • Town hall meetings where large groups were given the news and invited to ask how the company-wide shift would affect them
  • Function-wide meetings which include senior management
  • Internal large-scale change events in which 80-120 people receive presentations, break into a sequence of parallel team workshops on various issues, participate in a “World Café” to showcase results and continue discussions and conduct a “poster session marketplace” that summarizes the “wisdom of the internal crowd
  • Reflection workshops based on Design Thinking principles in which ideas are collected and rapid prototypes of individual elements of change are being built and discussed
  • Virtual “jam sessions”, i.e. a website set up for a 2-5 days period where anyone could post comments, responses, suggestions, and concerns
  • Physical or virtual “fireside conversations” with senior management on the case for change, the route that is followed and successes respectively learning points

Use easy yet effective navigation tools

The six principles outlined above provide a good starting point for designing an effective and efficient culture change program. Usually, the actual change plan will consist of several dozen, maybe even more than hundred single activities.

It is easy to get bogged down into detail and to lose sight of the big picture. In order to provide the people who are driving the change program have a clear view on the change that is taking place, we have developed a 1-page format that we call the “Change Canvas”. Its general layout is based on the “canvas” artifact that gained visibility in the context of Business Model Innovation.

click to enlarge

The Change Canvas provides per target group which is affected or involved in the change a quick overview on

  • Who is in the target group
  • The value proposition of change for this target group (answering the key question “What is in for me?”)
  • The target group-specific reason why change is necessary
  • The target group-specific desired culture (Patterns of behavior, thinking, deciding and the necessary capabilities / skills to be developed)
  • The target group-specific drivers and barriers, driving or slowing down change
  • Individual change activities
  • Learning spaces and communication spaces for this target group
  • Key resource requirements and risks (Planned versus current status)
  • Key metrics for success and progress (Planned versus current status)


In today’s business world, nothing is more constant than change. So one would assume that firms have built up a good deal of managing change.

Yet this is not true. Only 1 in 2 major change initiatives succeed. It gets particularly difficult, if the change requires developing the innovation culture, i.e. the self-sustaining patterns of behavior, thinking and deciding in the innovation context.

This article shows seven basic principles that form the basis of any successful innovation culture change program:

  • Understand your starting point well
  • Know exactly where you want to go to
  • Don’t fight existing culture – Draw energy from it
  • Act your way into thinking
  • Arrange management alignment
  • Provide spaces for learning
  • Use easy yet effective navigation tools

(Note: The 7 principles visual, the “Health Check” and the innovation-3 Change Canvas are protected Intellectual Property. If you are interested in using this tool please get in touch with the author to discuss options).

By Frank Mattes

About the author:

Frank Mattes has more than 15 years of experience in managing innovation, change management and projects. He has worked for several specialized medium-sized consulting companies and for The Boston Consulting Group. He also worked at C-level for an IT and a professional services firm. Frank founded and runs the innovation catalyst innovation-3. Frank is the author of several books and a contributing editor to InnovationManagement, the number one platform for innovation management practitioners.

Photo : Old Way, New Way by