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The death of Steve Jobs in October 2011 gave rise to a rumour: Apple, deprived of its mentor, would no longer be able to stay the course. Tim Cook, its CEO, denied this idea in 2013, at the occasion of the Goldman Sachs conference. For him, Apple’s ability to invent new concepts also depends on its culture of innovation, and he confirmed that it had never been so strong. His words echoed the conclusions of the annual Booz & Company study in 2011, which revealed that 47% of world-leading innovating companies considered the culture of innovation as a key factor (1).
The established correlation between the ability to innovate and the culture of innovation had led to a shift from the injunction to innovate to that of developing said culture. Proof comes in the 2013 report “Coping with the Crisis, the European Way”, by Ernst & Young, that argues for developing a culture of innovation to enable Europe to become a leader in the field. Closer to home, the 57-billion-euro investment plan presented in September 2017 seems to go in the same direction as the goal since, as Prime Minister Edouard Philippe specifies, it is to restore a culture of innovation. The question remains as to what exactly this means.
Thinking of innovation through the cultural prism means underlining the fact that it cannot be reduced to a “simple” question of investment and its collective nature. The concept of culture refers to what is common to a group of individuals, that of a culture of innovation refers to a state of mind, shared values and practices that promote the imagination, the creation of value, calling for consideration of usages and users, promoting interactions, cross-fertilisation of knowledge, risk-taking but also iteration, and mental and organisational flexibility. Thus imagined, there need be no incantations to innovate, just a culture of innovation.
Easier said than done? Given the number of recommendations in articles with promising titles (“6 Steps to a Culture of Innovation”, “25 Ways to Develop a Culture of Innovation”, “50 Ways to Encourage a Culture of Innovation in the Company”) and specific methods (such as design thinking, KCP or Triz, or lean start-up to name but a few in fashion), it would seem that this is indeed the case. In reality, there is no magic formula and passing from theory to practice is not as easy as it would immediately seem. The emergence of a culture of innovation cannot be decreed, only built. It is not enough to bring together seemingly innovative actors in a favourable environment to ensure innovation. This is why Tim Cook considered Apple’s culture of innovation as a strategic asset, as it is not easily copied by rivals.
Moreover, if we content ourselves with accumulating organisational recipes, perverse effects may arise: sclerosis in organisations that have to follow a “recipe”; production of contradictory injunctions - think “out of the box”, but whatever you do, don’t stray from the company’s standard process of innovation. Passing from theory to practice is all the more difficult when you only consider the visible part of the culture of innovation, like an iceberg. It is forgetting the two key factors that drive it: creative rationality and a technical culture. While the first opens a universe of possibilities and moves away from established norms and paradigms, the second helps to restore the political dimension of innovation.
(1) Booz & Company, “Why Culture is Key. The global innovation 1000”, 2011.
Doctor in Production Economics
Joëlle Forest is a university lecturer at INSA Lyon, where she teaches innovation. She is scientific head of the Gaston Berger Institute’s “Ingenious Engineers Chair” program, funded by Saint-Gobain.