The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures | HBR Jan-Feb 2019

Innovation is hard work.

The side of innovation that we read in books and magazines is the superstar CEO and her genius inventors chugging away at changing the world.

It pushes the reality of innovation past our cognitive horizon.

When in fact, true innovation is much more complicated than that.

The side of innovation that we don’t see is the intolerance for mediocrity, high personal accountability, and disciplined leadership.

Soak up the invaluable insights, ideas and stories from The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures by HBS professor Gary P. Pisano.

Most memorable quotes

A tolerance for failure requires an intolerance for incompetence. A willingness to experiment requires rigorous discipline. Psychological safety requires comfort with brutal candor. Collaboration must be balanced with individual accountability. And flatness requires strong leadership. Innovative cultures are paradoxical. Unless the tensions created by this paradox are carefully managed, attempts to create an innovative culture will fail.

Gary P. Pisano

The truth is that a tolerance for failure requires having extremely competent people. Attempts to create novel technological or business models are fraught with uncertainty. You often don’t know what you don’t know, and you have to learn as you go.

Gary P. Pisan

Creating a culture that simultaneously values learning through failure and outstanding performance is difficult in organizations with a history of neither.

Gary P. Pisano

A failure should be celebrated only if it results in learning.

Gary P. Pisano

If such standards [in performance] are not well understood, difficult personnel decisions can seem capricious or, worse, be misconstrued as punishment for a failure.

Gary P. Pisano

They [organisation’s comfortable with experimentation] experiment to learn rather than to produce an immediately marketable product or service.

Gary P. Pisano

Discipline-oriented cultures select experiments carefully on the basis of their potential learning value, and they design them rigorously to yield as much information as possible relative to the costs.

Gary P. Pisano

Being more disciplined about killing losing projects makes it less risky to try new things.

Gary P. Pisano

Scientific and business judgments are required to figure out which ideas to move forward, which to reformulate, and which to kill.

Gary P. Pisano

[P]sychological safety is a two-way street. If it is safe for me to criticize your ideas, it must also be safe for you to criticize mine—whether you’re higher or lower in the organization than I am.

Gary P. Pisano

When it comes to innovation, the candid organization will outperform the nice one every time. […] Accepting a devastating critique of your idea is possible only if you respect the opinion of the person providing that feedback.

Gary P. Pisano

But too often, collaboration gets confused with consensus. And consensus is poison for rapid decision making and navigating the complex problems associated with transformational innovation.

Gary P. Pisano

[F]latness requires develop[ing] their own strong leadership capacities and be[ing] comfortable with taking action and being accountable for their decisions.

Gary P. Pisano

Accountability makes it much easier to be flat—and flat organizations create a rapid flow of information, which leads to faster, smarter decision making.

Gary P. Pisano

Those who think of innovation as a free-for-all will see discipline as an unnecessary constraint on their creativity; those who take comfort in the anonymity of consensus won’t welcome a shift toward personal accountability.

Gary P. Pisano

Simply breaking a big bureaucratic organization into smaller units does not magically endow them with entrepreneurial spirit. Without strong management efforts to shape values, norms, and behaviors, these offspring units tend to inherit the culture of the parent organization that spawned them.

Gary P. Pisano