Culture hacking: 5 examples you can borrow

Culture hacking: 5 examples you can borrow

Want to shake up your organization's culture and infuse a more innovative mindset? Consider these five real-world ideas

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July 12, 2019

Many large, established organizations have a status quo culture, meaning they are risk averse and prefer the existing over the new. This is dangerous in times of accelerating change, since it holds innovation back. Organizations need to transform from the status quo to cultures where all employees are innovators and thrive in constant change. The best companies understand this and continue to strengthen their innovation cultures by “culture hacking.”

Surprisingly, most culture hacks don’t cost anything. Culture hacking isn’t about money: It’s about mindset and design.

[ When it comes to leadership, are you a mountain or a lake? Read also: 5 weird questions to ask about your leadership style. ]

Here are five powerful culture hacks that some of the best companies out there are using to build a strong innovation culture - and five solid ideas to borrow or to inspire your own culture hacks.

1. Change the work environment frequently

Water pump manufacturing giant Grundfos has created a “digital factory” that develops the company’s IoT solutions. This office is situated adjacent to headquarters with a different interior design. In fact, Grundfos changes the interior design every once in a while to ensure that the employees continuously experience change. Neurology research shows that change, under the right circumstances, generates enthusiasm. Shaking things up every now and then stirs up curiosity and excitement. This is good for innovation.

2. Get creative with recognition awards

At Google, certain departments hand out a Courageous Penguin award. The idea behind the award comes from how penguins stand by the edge of an iceberg and consider jumping in the water. One has to be first, but the first penguin doesn’t know if it will hit water or ice beneath the water. Therefore, it takes a courageous penguin to take the first leap. With the Courageous Penguin award, Google recognizes similar courage in its employees as a way to amplify a culture in which people dare to do things even when they don’t know whether it will work out beforehand.

[ What are the must-do's for IT chiefs leading culture change? Read also: 10 steps to leading successful culture change. ]

3. Make it harder to say "no" to new ideas

Amazon has invented the institutional “yes,” which means that bosses who reject a project idea from an employee must write a two-page argument about why they’ve said no and publish it on the intranet. With this strategy, Amazon adds friction to saying no and forces a boss to think twice and give the idea the attention it deserves. This increases the number of "yes"es and bolsters Amazon’s innovation power.

4. Consider reverse mentoring

IBM in the Nordic region holds “reverse mentor” sessions, where senior executives shadow young employees for either a half or whole day to better understand them. Learnings from these reverse mentor sessions are used for both leadership and innovation purposes.

[ Could this work for your organization? Read also: How to succeed with reverse mentoring: 7 steps.]

5. Let people design the culture they want 

Maersk Growth, the logistics and shipping giant’s venture arm, has set up a “culture club” where employees investigate what kind of culture they want, and how they establish cohesion with the rest of the organization’s set of values. They also hold “growth corners,” which are half-day events when employees can pitch new ideas, experts are invited to hold talks or anyone can take the microphone and talk about what’s on their mind. These initiatives are designed to foster a culture of openness and trust, which increases innovation output.

These are just some in a long list of cultural hacks that can be implemented to strengthen a company’s innovation culture. Many cost nothing. That doesn’t mean, though, that they’re easy to implement. It requires both motivation and persistence.

Someone needs to take the lead and insist on implementing the hacks – not only initially, but also the fifth, sixth and seventh time when not everyone is excited about the new initiative. Doing it and maintaining continuity until the culture hack becomes part of the organization’s everyday culture is a significant step in moving a company beyond the status quo.

[ Are you leading culture change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst. ]

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Kris Oestergaard is a sought after speaker, facilitator, researcher and expert on innovation in legacy organizations, corporate cultures and exponential organizations. He is co-founder and Chief Learning and Innovation Officer at SingularityU Nordic, a collaborative venture with Singularity University in Silicon Valley.

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