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How culture drives breakthrough ideas

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Why read this? : We look at how culture affects your business’s ability to deliver breakthrough ideas. Learn how to encourage thinking that drives bolder and brasher innovation. Read this to learn how to create a culture to deliver better breakthrough ideas.

We tag the topics of our articles to make it easier to find content.

The tag word cloud on our main blog page shows which topics appear most often. 

A recent review of it surprisingly showed that many tags relate to getting things done :- 

  • Way of working.
  • Teams. 
  • Culture. 
Blog tag word cloud from the three-brains blog main page

But it makes sense, right? Businesses need to get things done. But looking at other popular tags, it was also clear, that it’s often about getting new things done :-

  • Digital marketing. 
  • E-Commerce. 
  • Innovation.

That made us think about why those topics come up so often. And for us, it’s because they’re hard to do. Doing new things which drive breakthrough ideas is hard. Hard to start. Hard to do. And hard to finish.  

But if they’re hard, why do we do them? Like JFK’s famous man on the moon speech, maybe we do hard things because they organise and measure the best of our energies and skills.

Hard things like explaining the benefits of digital marketing to those who don’t want to listen. Hard things like how to overcome the barriers which hold up e-Commerce. And hard things like the tough reality of marketing innovation.

Getting these hard new things done needs breakthrough ideas to change what people already do. But it’s usually easier to talk about a breakthrough idea than make it happen. Let’s look at why that might be. 

Running track with hurdles set up for a sprint race

Creators, critics and coasters

Our how to be a more creative company article showed there are 3 different types of people when it comes to new ideas. 

First, you have creators. They find it easy to come up with ideas and love to make stuff

Creators see problems as opportunities. They love to creatively come up with new and better ideas. They look for answers. 

Good ideas are good ideas. And even bad ideas spark thoughts which can lead to good ideas. 

Three business women having a meeting - the creator is thinking 'good idea', the critic is thinking 'bad idea' and the coaster is thinking 'no idea'

When your business needs idea generation and creative thinking ideas, you need creators. But not everyone’s a natural creator. And sometimes bad ideas are, well, bad ideas.

Businesses need ideas to thrive, but they need consistency and good decision-making too. 

In most businesses, you find people who want to prevent bad ideas. They’re usually managers and directors. And they’re the critics

They see new ideas as risks, not opportunities. Risks to the smooth running of the business.

Critics love to get on creative approval committees. They want to slow decision-making so they prevent risky bad ideas.

Man on apartment balcony holding hand in front of face to say stop

They’re the ones who dislike change and put up barriers to new projects (like in our barriers to e-Commerce and barriers to marketing articles). Yes, they stop you from doing anything stupid. But they often stop you from doing anything at all.

Lastly, there are those who keep the day-to-day business going – the coasters. They know the business needs creative thinking to grow. But they also worry about the consequences of making marketing mistakes

So they only favour improvement ideas which improve the efficiency of the current way of working. And they try to ignore breakthrough ideas which disrupt their efficient routines.

The creator, the destroyer and the preserver

As an aside, as we were writing this article, it occurred to us that the creator, critics and coasters idea has a religious precedent. Religion isn’t a topic we usually cover. But the Trimurti of the Hindu gods is strangely similar to the idea of creators, critics and coasters. The 3 Hindu gods of the Trimurti are Brahma the creator, Shiva the destroyer and Vishnu the preserver. 

That little side-thought isn’t leading anywhere. Sometimes ideas just don’t. But it’s always interesting when you see an idea work in a completely different context (and one thought of thousands of years before we thought of it).  

Manage the creators, critics and coasters

Anyway. Back to creative culture and breakthrough ideas. We’ll stay on topic now. 

You might think just hire all creators and you’ll be good. But businesses aren’t that simple. 

The trouble with creators is they only get their energy from the new stuff.

But that means they don’t get energy from the essential, but let’s face it duller, day-to-day stuff that keeps businesses going.

Creative and operations - diagram showing differences between two different ways of working

The financial reporting. Operating the production line. Managing teams so they deliver great customer service. Someone has to do those things. They matter. And it’s what critics and coasters are good at. So you need them too. 

Your culture has to find the right balance between operations mode and creative mode. Operations mode keeps the business engine going. Creative mode helps you find breakthrough ideas to steer the business in a new direction.

As per our generate more creative thinking ideas article, your culture needs to help people understand the differences between these 2 modes. 

Operations mode is most people’s default. But in creative mode, you have to signal that it’s “on”. Do this at the right time and in the right place. Set out team roles and responsibilities which will help you find breakthrough ideas outside operations mode. Make it clear that when creative mode is on, all ideas start as valid until proven otherwise.

Improvement ideas and breakthrough ideas

Our marketing evolution versus marketing revolution article showed most ideas exist somewhere on a spectrum. 

At one end, there are improvement ideas which help the business evolve. They make small continuous improvements to your existing offer. 

At the other end, breakthrough ideas which revolutionise your business. They make big bold moves into new ways of working.  

But it also showed you can have ideas all along the spectrum. You can have a portfolio of improvement and breakthrough ideas.

Marketing evolution - revolution model - spectrum showing mouse problem in middle and evolution answer - better mousetrap - and revolution answer - a cat

Improvement ideas keep your business growing steadily. They help maintain momentum. Breakthrough ideas put you ahead of competitors. But they’re more risky.

A good creative culture finds the balance between improvement ideas and breakthrough ideas. Different businesses have different balance points. 

For example, look at Volkswagen.

Every time they release a new Golf, people say it doesn’t look much different from the one before.

But the press release tells you they’ve made over 1,000 small improvements from the previous version. Not a single breakthrough idea, but many improvement ideas. Cumulatively, these create a great new product.  

Compare that to how new ideas work in the mobile phone market. 

Close up of the centre of a Volkswagen steering wheel

Nokia were big in the 1990s and early 2000s because they evolved mobile phones to not look like a brick. To be easy to carry in your pocket. 

And then along came the iPhone in 2007. That was revolutionary, a breakthrough idea.

Its touchscreen changed the way we interacted with our phones. Its mini-computer applications changed what we did on our phones.

The revolution happened and suddenly, Nokia was yesterday’s news. 

Lots of mobile phones from the end of the 1990s and early 2000s

But way before the iPhone, Apple had the Newton. Remember that? No, because it didn’t sell. 

And though they launched the somewhat revolutionary iPod before they had the iPhone, how did they maximise the value of that idea? With the evolutionary and now discontinued iPod nano and iPod Shuffle.

Businesses thrive by creating both improvement and breakthrough ideas. Your creative culture needs to work out the right balance for your business. 

Create an ideas-driven culture

Culture is how things get done in your business. So if you want ideas – both improvement and breakthrough – your culture helps make them happen.

Identify your business’s creators, critics and coasters. And identify how much you need improvement or breakthrough ideas. Then, allocate people to projects which match their styles and creative strengths. 

Evolutionary improvement ideas are relatively easy. They’re simple to understand, quick to activate and the returns are predictable. Who’s going to argue against that? 

Breakthrough ideas, on the other hand, are much harder. Complex to understand. Slow to activate. And unpredictable. They may make the business go boom, but may also make it go bust. Lots of arguments against that.

So, how do you give breakthrough ideas the best chance to survive?

Leadership sets the example

Culture in any business has to start somewhere. And the best place to start is from the top. 

If you want a business that’s going to generate breakthrough ideas, the leadership team needs to set the example.

They need to establish a culture where people feel safe. Where they’re positively encouraged to put forward breakthrough ideas. 

A great example of leadership which encourages breakthrough ideas is Pixar. We’ve shared ideas about this from Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, one of its founders, in a previous article.

By definition, breakthrough ideas “break” things. It’s up to the leadership team to define what they want to break. And what they don’t want to break. What they’ll accept as sound marketing decision-making, and what they’ll reject as crazy and impossible.

Leaders should know the creative styles of their people. And know what types of creative projects those styles best fit. They should delegate projects to the people with the right creative approach for that type of project. 

Creators thrive in a culture where it feels safe to work on breakthrough ideas. Where they feel supported to refine ideas until they’re more polished. 

It’s up to the leaders to create that culture. To send out the right messages and make the resources and support available. To back up the breakthrough ideas.

Make culture and strategy work together

There’s a well-known management saying by Peter Drucker that “culture eats strategy for breakfast“. 

You usually hear it from smug leadership guru types who don’t really understand what it means. 

Yes, culture’s important. But culture and strategy aren’t an either / or.

Having a good culture doesn’t relieve you of the need to have a clear strategy.

You need both. 

Some people in business (often in high-level HR roles for some reason) like to play down the need for strategy. Too abstract and confusing for most people. Culture’s what’s important, they say. Culture’s how things happen after all. 

But culture on its own isn’t enough. You need culture and strategy working together to make sure what happens is right for the business. 

Breakthrough ideas don’t come from a formula which says Culture > Strategy or Strategy > Culture. Breakthrough ideas from Culture >< Strategy i.e. when you multiply culture and strategy together. When how you do things and what you do work together. 

You must manage your culture. Don’t outsource it to leadership gurus or strategists. Make sure the people who lead the culture also understand the business strategy. Culture and strategy need to work in harmony for the best results.

Set up constructive conflict, not destructive conflict

Finally, your creative culture has to plan for and manage conflict. 

Breakthrough ideas come out of conflict.

When ideas get challenged, when there’s healthy debate, ideas get better. 

But watch out as there are 2 types of conflict  – constructive and destructive.

Obviously, constructive is the one you want.

Man in a suit sitting at a desk holding a phone and angrily shouting into the mouthpiece

Constructive conflict focuses on making ideas better. It assumes positive intent. With constructive conflict, a creative culture encourages people to listen. To be honest. To be humble. 

It encourages people to say, “Yes, and …” to build on and improve ideas. Constructive conflict creates a safe environment for people to bounce breakthrough ideas off each other.

Conversely, destructive conflict assumes negative intent. It’s designed to maintain people’s status and the business status quo. It encourages people to say, “No, but …”, so ideas get killed

It creates an unsafe environment. People hold back their breakthrough ideas because they expect criticism, insults and negativity. 

So encourage constructive conflict, and discourage destructive conflict in your business. Get it right, and you’re on the way to a great creative culture. 

(See also our article about Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy which covers similar ground on business creativity).

Conclusion - Creative culture and breakthrough ideas

Getting new things done in any business is hard.

People’s preferences for the types of ideas they support differ. They disagree on what the business needs to grow. 

Improvement ideas evolve the business. They’re safe bets which deliver steady growth. 

But, you need to leave them to the critics and coasters in your business who get their energy from making sure your business runs smoothly. 

Neon sign saying "I am Bold"

Breakthrough ideas aren’t smooth running. They’re much harder to manage. Creators love them, but breakthrough ideas scare most other people because they “break” things. 

But breaking things can be good as you replace what’s broken with something better. Strong leaders set the example for breakthrough ideas. They know how to manage culture and strategy together and encourage constructive, not destructive conflict. 

This is how you get a culture which delivers breakthrough ideas.

Check out our e-Commerce culture article for more on this. Or get in touch if your business needs help creating breakthrough ideas.  

Photo Credits

I am bold : Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

Hurdles : Photo by Jeremy Chen on Unsplash

Three women sitting together (adapted) : Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Hand / Stop : Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Volkswagen : Photo by Julian Hochgesang on Unsplash

Mobile phones : Photo by Eirik Solheim on Unsplash

Three people pointing at laptop : Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Man shouting at phone : Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

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