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Organisations must create a Culture of Innovation if the human race is to survive

Note: This is part of Nokia Software Business Group’s new guest-blog series on ‘digital time,’ providing expert insights and best practices to help customers drive innovation and leverage technology to deliver superior digital experiences.

The tin can was invented in 1772, but by some reports the first proper tin can opener was not invented until 1855. I think this says something intriguing about how humans view the future, and change.

Today we talk about technological disruption like we talk about the weather – constantly and without much understanding of the underlying forces that shape what’s happening. The future is asking us all some difficult questions, but very few organisations are literate enough to hear them, or answer them.

The late great UK author Douglas Adams observed that technology falls into three categories. First, the things invented before you were born, which you’re usually ambivalent about. Second, technology invented between your birth and middle age, which is often terribly exciting, that will change the world and you can probably get a job out of. Third, technology that arrives after middle age which is completely useless and makes you angry. This observation doesn’t apply only to technology, but also new ideas, philosophies and ways of organising ourselves.

One of the biggest challenges facing businesses today is that the people deciding the strategic direction of an organisation are usually in Adams’ last category. Yet, the most of the people they’re trying to reach (employees, customers, citizens) are in the second group. This leads to what I like to call ‘institutional bewilderment’: where, as the world speeds up, older organisations find it increasingly difficult to deal with faster-arriving new technologies and ways of thinking. We need to close this gap.

The first step is to understand the questions the future is asking. Only then can you stay relevant - by answering those questions in a way that makes the world more sustainable, equitable, humane, and just. Let me be clear, if our organisations don’t step up to the challenges of climate change, inequality, the unsustainability of our food and energy systems and the governance gap, we are all dead. We must ask ourselves the right questions or perish in our ignorance. Indeed, I define innovation as “the culture of asking the right questions.”

Many organisations, however, seem to define innovation as including the word “creativity” in HR manuals, building bean-bag-filled “innovation spaces,” and indulging in some fig-leaf sized corporate responsibility – a culture of conservatism and complacency, even as their strategy documents claim bold ambitions. But, as the great American business theorist Peter Drucker famously remarked, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Here’s a quick way to see how fit your organisation is to face an uncertain future.

Take out a piece of paper. Write down, on a scale of one to 10, how you’d rate yourself, yourself as a leader, and your organisation, on each of the following eight principles of successful optimists:

  • Having an unashamed optimism for the future: You can’t make a better future until you imagine it – and not just for yourself, but for everyone. Do you?
  • Engaging in projects that are bigger than you: Happiness means finding something more important than you are, and dedicating your life to it. What’s your organisation’s “bigger than me” project (and no, I don’t mean “making more money”)?
  • Remembering that you are what you do, not what you intend to do: People who change the world don’t make excuses – they act. As Amelia Earhart said, “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.” Are your bold plans for contributing to society just marketing fluff – or are you walking the talk?
  • Realising making mistakes is okay, but not trying is irresponsible: Being optimistic that you’ll to get something wrong in the creation of something beautiful is an important quality. Do you reward the right mistakes?
  • Engineering serendipity: Creative people who want to make the world a better place constantly try out new ideas and experiences, creating a fertile ground for new insights. Is your organisation allowing its people to constantly expand their experience, or putting them in boxes?
  • Thinking like an engineer, not like a politician: Do you believe in evidence (e.g. climate change), or comfort yourself with ideology?
  • Playing the long game (AKA, lose a lot): Are you willing to lose more often than you win, at least until halfway through the game? If you’re not, you’ll never achieve anything of value.
  • Policing your own cynicism: At its core, cynicism is really just obedience to the status quo. Most organisations are lapdogs to the culture that built them. Is yours?

How do you measure up?

In the end, we have to be defined by what we create, not by what we own.

The world you inherited is the tin can. You are the tin can opener. You’re late, but we’re glad you’re here.

Mark Stevenson is a futurist, entrepreneur and author of two books: We Do Things Differently and An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. Visit to learn more.

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