At the centre of the federal government's new Innovation Strategy is the desire to build a stronger culture of innovation which encourages business to take more risks and bring more new ideas to market.

Culture is a buzzword we all throw around from time to time, but what does it really mean and what does an innovative culture look like?

Just like every country or nation, every organization has its own unique culture and subcultures which create a corporate ethos (or personality) which is enacted and transmitted between generations of employees. This serves to give a company its corporate identity and a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs which governs how people behave.

Organisational culture is transmitted through the process of socialization and storytelling, although the recent breakdown of vertically integrated business structures and the emergence of increasingly dispersed, outsourced and networked organizations is diluting organizational cultures and making it harder for managers to achieve what the government is hoping will happen.

In the construction industry, the dominant subcontracting model of organization reflects this dispersed method of organizing, and its destructive impact on corporate culture is exacerbated by the temporary project-based nature of construction organization and the confrontational, fragmented and dysfunctional methods by which we procure buildings.

There has been a huge amount of research into organizational culture which shows that it is defined by a wide range of variables which include a firm’s history, stories, heroes and outlaws, rituals and ceremonies, norms,communication styles, language, values, metaphors, shared symbols, and physical artifacts such as buildings, décor, workplaces, logos and codes of dress.

Research has also shown that the cultures of innovative firms such as IBM, Procter & Gamble, IKEA, Apple, Hewlett Packard, Walt Disney and Google tend to be characterized by a range of common attributes. These represent the sorts of attributes which leaders in the construction industry would be wise to mirror, if we are to make our industry more innovative in the future.

So what are these key attributes?


Innovative firms tend to see their business as a cause, as something important that is worth thinking hard about and striving for. This gives people a deep motivation and sense of responsibility to justify and persevere with courageous revolutionary actions.


Innovative firms allow and expect activism and create a climate where positive debate around ideas is allowed and expected, where challenges can to be voiced and where people can argue their case. Supported by an environment of positive debate, innovations are depersonalized, with debates being focussed on an idea not the person presenting it. Debates also tend to stretch on across regional, functional and chronological boundaries, and thinking about an idea can engage an entire company.


Creative firms ‘listen’ to outsiders who bring new ideas to their business from other contexts and industries. They are also open to the views of underrepresented voices and create a free market for ideas with no prejudice about who is capable of developing a new winning idea and being supported.

Customer focus

Innovative firms tend to be highly customer-focused, but they also recognize that customers cannot always imagine what is possible. So innovative firms do not always do what the customer wants – they seek to exceed expectations. They also seek to educate customers about the value of innovation and engage them in the process of creating and assessing new ideas.

Risk taking

Innovative firms encourage people to experiment and take risks in an environment which is tolerant of failure and where mistakes are treated as learning opportunities not failures. Failure is recognized as critical to the creative process and it is assumed that many bad ideas must be generated to produce a good one.


Trust is the bedrock of creative firms. First, people with ideas must feel their ideas will be respected and that they can speak their minds without fear of criticism or punishment. Second, firms must also trust that the person with the idea has the company’s best interests at heart.

Structured thinking

Creative firms realize that creative thinking doesn’t happen by accident and that it needs to be encouraged through deliberately structured processes.


Creative firms also recognise that overly structured processes can constrain thinking. To balance this, they create opportunities for serendipity by creating opportunities for the unexpected coming together of people and ideas from different parts of the organisation and the external environment.

Cellular structures

Innovative firms tend to have a cellular rather than hierarchical structure. Innovations are spun off into revolutionary cells which tend to emerge around new ideas as they develop and are proven. This structure give a company a small feel, even if it is very large. It also ensures closeness to customers and maintains agility and focus as a company grows.


Innovative firms shift and evolve their structures, roles and responsibilities in response to evolving opportunities with the aim of stimulating new approaches to engaging everyday problems.


Creative firms employ divergent thinkers who care about originality. Creative people, free radicals and misfits are not ridiculed but are seen as important players in challenging ideas and providing fresh perspectives. While creativity needs to be eventually balanced by practicality, the constraints of implementation are not permitted to restrain early idea development.

Creative conflict

Creative firms strategically combine different roles, capabilities and personalities to induce creative tensions in teams. They recognize that team compositions that might lead to the most efficient ideas do not necessarily lead to the best ideas.

Collaboration and integration

Few firms have all the knowledge to innovate these days. So creative firms rarely work alone but seek to ‘co-create’ new ideas in collaboration with deeply integrated supply and demand chains of complementary knowledge and skills. True deep integration requires the sharing of risk and reward and an open culture which is driven by collaboration and trust rather than competition and confrontation.


In innovative firms, people feel challenged and there are opportunities for personal development and pursuit of passions which are not always directly and obviously related to work. People are allowed to grow personally and there is a basic drive to extend their personal boundaries, develop latent talents and explore new possibilities.


Innovative firms are often characterized by a certain child-like, but not childish, playfulness. People are permitted to try things out without knowing what will happen and there is a fun-loving culture where humour is seen as productive and work is seen as fun.

Risk management

Innovative firms take calculated rather than blind risks and only move forward with a realistic and rigorous understanding of their exposure. Their higher ability to manage risk provides them with the confidence to be innovative and allows them to turn high risk situations into opportunities.


Innovative firms take seemingly impractical, ridiculous and foolish ideas seriously. They recognize the value in applying things they have learnt in one realm to another completely different context.


Innovative firms recognize that discovering and developing ideas takes time and involves incubation. People are not tightly constrained to a full nine-to-five (or more) job. Firms trust employees and allow flexibility to enable people to go beyond basic ideas which don’t always come within the 9 to 5 working day.


In innovative firms, people tend to have elastic job descriptions which provide them with the ability to shift their activities in response to opportunities and they are provided with the responsibility, authority and resources to effectively address the challenges they have been set.


Innovative firms are constantly scanning the business environment, seeking to understand and respond to it in advance. They look over the horizon rather than look at the horizon.

Tolerant of dissent

Innovative firms tolerate dissent. They welcome criticism and bad news. Harmony is not assumed to be associated with high performance.

People development

Innovative firms continuously develop their people so they are equipped with the knowledge and skills to innovate. These firms balance technical competency development with skills in creative problem-solving.

Creative spaces

Innovative firms generally exist in creative spaces which are textural, engaging and fun. They help to break down organizational barriers by providing flexible non-hierarchical spaces where people can casually meet, and they provide different types of workspaces where people can engage in different types of thinking and workplace activities.

Unconventional metrics

Innovative firms tend to use a broader range of unconventional metrics to measure their performance. Success is rarely measured in purely financial terms and because they seek to differentiate themselves, innovative firms tend to develop their own distinct measures of success rather than those which their competitors are using.


Innovative firms tend to have an almost palpable buzz about them. This originates from the leaders of the organization who have a vision and sense of energy and enthusiasm which ‘infects’ others with a passion for creativity, success and learning.

How does your company score?