To sail a ship further than you can see requires navigation. To take your company further into the future than you can see requires a corporate innovation culture that is aligned on the company's business model.

Yes, I know that much of the talk about corporate innovation sounds like this: "Buzz buzz buzz….innovation culture….buzz buzz buzz."

“Buzz," because "innovation culture" remains an elusive concept. Does it even matter? Does it help a company innovate? Can an innovation culture help a company innovate new business models? I say yes, developing an innovation culture is worthwhile, and yes, it can even help with business model exploration and innovation.

In the Sandbox, we use the "story" metaphor to define business models: "The business model is the story of your business. How does the business create value, to whom and how does it deliver value, and how does it capture value back into the company." 

Discussing the impact of innovation culture requires a more specific metaphor. Mine is nautical navigation. Even in a mid-size business, changing culture can be like turning a ship under sail “hard to starboard.” The task for a large enterprise is even harder, more like turning our ship hard to starboard, while sailing a storm-tossed sea.

The bottom line: If you want to your ship to reach its destination, it’s critical that the crew is aligned on the "passage plan" (as nautical plans are called).

Why is it so important to align the company's innovation culture with the company's innovation agenda?

Back to our ship: Certainly the Captain and the Second Mate need to be aligned, if the ship is to move forward at all. And neither the Captain nor the Second Mate can perform every task on the ship, or stand watch 24 hours a day, they need a plan. The plan must be communicated in language common to the crew, so they can align with the passage plan.

Even without a passage plan, a ship can certainly sail as far as the Captain can see. If the destination is known, and the ship moves in that direction, the ship will arrive at the destination. Especially if the crew is skilled at the use of navigation instruments. But a ship without a passage plan will likely drift away from the best path to its destination. The Captain then risks the chance that a competing ship could get cargo and passengers into port more quickly. If the business model of those operating our ship depends on timeliness, they’ll fail. Maybe not right away, but inevitably.

Back to business : Most leaders want to grow beyond their business beyond the life of its current business model  — to sail their ship into the future. To do so, it's critical that the company grow an innovation culture aligned with its goals for innovation and business model innovation. A common language is needed to align the company with its innovation plans. The business model, which tells the story of the business, is the the company's common language for innovation.

Who creates a company's innovation culture?

It's important to note that leaders do not create culture. Nor do employees. Culture, the way business is conducted daily, forms organically from both directions — bottom-up and top-down. However, the evolution of culture can be guided. An innovation culture can be guided by making sure the entire company shares a common language for innovation, as well as for business model innovation. Employees must view the company, as well as their own jobs, through the lens of innovation. They need to adopt an "innovation point of view." Even people who may not be innovators must adopt the innovation point of view.

A company where everyone shares a common language and an innovation point of view is a company primed for business model innovation. This company is ready from the bottom up to support business model exploration efforts without fear or hesitation. It's ready and willing to create and learn the future story of the business — the new business model.

This company is ready to explore and create its future story, while its current business model is still strong. But once the business model is threatened, it’s almost impossible to create a new, transformative story. That ship has sailed. 

Note: The ship pictured above has nothing to do with this story, except metaphorically. And because it’s cool. Here’s more about it: “The first-ever completely open source, small-scale, solar-sail working ship was designed by the Greenheart Project, whose goal is to create affordable, multi-use sail/solar-powered ships to meet the challenges of the world’s least-developed regions."

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