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For real…what’s your workplace culture? A 10-point checklist

May 30, 2011

I don’t know about you, but I’ve read tons of ‘how to’ lists and theories about workplace culture. And it’s still not always clear exactly what I should do today, tomorrow and on an ongoing basis to foster a work culture that works. This article is an attempt to solve that riddle.

Culture is a funny thing. The reason it’s so hard to create/control is because it’s largely a result of our human-ness. And humans can be extremely cryptic or fickle. Add to that the fact that we don’t always communicate effectively, even in the best of times, and you’ve got yourself a multi-factor conundrum. It’s rarely as simple as adding ingredients from the latest workplace culture guru, stirring well and knowing that it will all turn out perfect.  Just ask any manager.

But…there ARE things you can start to do today that could turn the tide.  And if you want to create a work environment that celebrates and nurtures creativity and innovation, then one of the most fundamental steps is to become aware of your workplace culture.  If you don’t know what culture exists today, how do you know if it’s a suitable one to drive innovation forward?

I will return to this topic several more times.  For now, I urge you to think through the checklist below.  I mean, REALLY think through it.  Be brutally honest.  The truth can hurt, but it also ultimately heals.  And if you’re in a leadership position in your company, start thinking about what these answers spell for the fate of innovation initiatives.

If you recognize your company in 4 or more of the items below, then you need to fix some essential aspects of your workplace culture before you can start to foster innovation.

  1. During a meeting, when the presenter is done and asks if there are any questions, there is typically silence.  Sometimes, with a little urging, there are a few simple or casual comments.  These comments rarely dispute what is being said.
  2. Staff members wear masks at work i.e. they tend to say different things or portray themselves differently during office hours, then say the opposite (typically bitch & moan) during lunch hour or after work with their inner circle of colleagues.
  3. The company has tried several ways to instill innovation e.g. ‘20% free time’, ‘innovation month’, ‘suggest a new idea & win an iPad’ but somehow they don’t pan out.
  4. Innovation technology and tools have been introduced e.g. intranet feedback channels, idea suggestion software.  These work for a while, then become misused or abandoned.
  5. When a disruptive idea is suggested, there is no way of strategically assessing whether it is worth pursuing or investing in.
  6. Innovation & creativity is perceived purely as ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking i.e. the zanier, the better and therefore the more appropriate.
  7. The company comprises several distinct sub-cultures that don’t respect or, worse, actively engage in politics with each other.  E.g. the R&D department thinks the marketing department sucks, and the sales teams hate finance’s guts etc.
  8. The company is deliberately set up so that departments have to compete with each other for (limited) resources, and the most aggressive or vocal departments are rewarded the most often.
  9. The frequency & intensity of miscommunication seems to be escalating.  Department heads or executives often have to step in to arbitrate.
  10. Staff contribution and recognition seem out-dated or off-kilter.  If your company is more conventional, then people who ‘rock the boat’ are thumbed down.  And if your company is more progressive, then staff who hold down the fort and make sure things run smoothly (e.g. operations, customer service) are taken for granted.

Surprised to see this type of checklist in an article about innovation?  Well, so was I when I first wrote this.  My intention for this blog is to get real, to get to the heart of what can thwart innovation.  And a toxic, non-trusting, apathetic, non-celebratory, non-strategic, non-thinking, short-term approach at work will make any innovation initiative die a quick death.
I hope this list has set you thinking.  What other cultural red flags do you know of that can stand in the way of creating an innovative enterprise?  Please comment below.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2011 10:18 am

    I love this checklist. I have two companies: one which applies the principles and techniques of improvisational theatre and storytelling to the workplace, to help individuals and groups collaborate, communicate and create more effectively. The other is an actual performing improv company. I am amazed how much I can “know” and still struggle to put in to practice in my own backyard. There are always forces – resources, ego, competing priorities, different styles and tastes – that, even in a venue as “creativity friendly” as an improv troupe, make things tough. Certainly, easier said than done, to dare to be obvious.

    A couple other red flags I might add:

    – Are people initially really gung ho about an idea, but uncommitted to the implementation and doing the boring, obvious dirty work?
    – Do people give up as soon as an objection is surfaced?
    – Is the power and status structure such that only some chosen people get to express their opinions and ideas?
    – Are people so eager to avoid conflict that they won’t troubleshoot?
    – Is failure regarded as taboo?

    • June 1, 2011 1:58 pm

      Hi Kat, thanks for your comment! And thanks for acknowledging that workplace culture challenges surface in even the most ‘creativity-friendly’ of places & companies like yours.

      I love your additional red flags and couldn’t agree more. It can be exciting to plan for a new future, but it takes
      1) tenacity and commitment to stay the course through the ‘boring & dirty’ implementation phase
      2) patience and awareness to include the quieter contributors
      3) maturity and a systems view to deal with failure and conflict en route

      Keep your comments/thoughts coming. I hope you continue to enjoy this blog, and do please recommend it to others 🙂


  1. Are you (culturally) ready for open innovation? « Inventive Change

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