When Building a Culture For Innovation, Form Follows Function

When Building a Culture For Innovation, Form Follows Function

When Building a Culture For Innovation, Form Follows Function

  • Posted by Cris Beswick
  • On 16/05/2024

First, let’s unpack a Culture OF Innovation vs A Culture FOR Innovation. Innovation is not a monolithic entity that can be injected into an organisation’s cultural fabric. Instead, it emerges as the synergistic product of elements intentionally combined within a nurturing environment. With this understanding, we can delineate two distinct cultural paradigms regarding innovation:

The false narrative of ‘A Culture OF Innovation’ depicts innovation as an intrinsic core component around which the organisational culture is built. This definition risks making innovation an end unto itself rather than an output serving the organisation’s strategic interests. A fresher narrative of ‘A Culture FOR Innovation’ treats innovation as the desired outcome enabled by thoughtfully combining various cultural elements and initiatives. This perspective views innovation not as a thing unto itself but as an organisational capability that emerges from systematic efforts. Such efforts may include:

  • Aligning innovation capability with core strategic priorities
  • Implementing processes like design thinking or lean methodologies
  • Incentivising and rewarding innovation-focused behaviour
  • Promoting collaborative knowledge-sharing across silos
  • Leadership demonstrating unwavering commitment to innovation-led growth

By treating innovation as an outcome rather than a physical component, this narrative avoids the pitfall of making innovation an abstraction detached from tangible impacts or, to put it another way, a strategic capability facilitated by ecosystem-level efforts. That said, the underlying truth persists – Innovation arises from the harmonious convergence of various cultural elements rather than existing as a discrete artefact to be manufactured. When establishing a culture FOR innovation, success hinges on holistically shaping an environment where the seeds of new ideas can flourish into solutions serving the organisation’s greater purpose; if they are subsequently labelled ‘innovative’, then all the better!

So, fostering a thriving culture for innovation within an organisation requires more than buzzwords and well-intentioned initiatives. It demands a comprehensive realignment of the company’s form to enable its innovation-led functional purpose effectively. As an ex-designer, I think the pioneering “form follows function” principle, first articulated by architect Louis Sullivan around 120 years ago, holds the key to unlocking an organisation’s full potential to drive innovation-led growth.

At its core, the form follows function maxim postulates that the shape and design of any system should be an intentional product derived from its intended use rather than arbitrary aesthetic preferences. When applied to architecture, this translates into structures moulded by their underlying purpose – office buildings optimised for workplace productivity, museums curated to showcase art, or stadiums sculpted around the dynamics of athletic events.

While Sullivan’s original theory spoke to the world of physical construction, the universal truth it captured quickly transcended that initial domain. Decades later, the form-follows-function paradigm became deeply embedded across industrial design, software development, and systems engineering disciplines. Regardless of the field, the fundamental premise persists – construct your solutions around their essential functions rather than preconceived notions of form.

This guiding principle is an indispensable strategic cornerstone for businesses striving to drive innovation-led growth. In today’s relentlessly competitive landscape, conventional modes of operation erode productive capacity. Legacy structures, processes, and power dynamics ossify into restraints, thwarting new value creation crucial for sustainable growth. To cultivate an innovation-led culture, organisations must systematically realign all aspects of their institutional form to enable their innovation-focused functional objectives seamlessly.

This transformative realignment begins with reimagining the company’s core reason for being – its overarching strategy. Armed with refreshed strategic priorities, executive teams can then meticulously lead the reshaping of the organisation’s form through various structural interventions. These encompass divesting antiquated business units, sapping resources, redefining roles and reporting hierarchies, restructuring governance models, and recruiting vital new skill sets. The end goal involves constructing an optimised form finely tuned to drive continuous innovation-led growth as its primary function. For example, a traditional industrial manufacturer leveraging emerging digital technologies might establish a new software engineering arm. This functional need could spawn new organisational forms like dedicated research labs, university partnerships to cultivate talent pipelines, or acquiring an agile tech startup and grafting it into the existing structure. The shift may trigger the dissolving of obsolete product divisions threatened by savvier competitors.

Beyond broad structural modifications, the form-follows-function ethos should permeate an organisation’s culture through consistent, iterative refinements. Perhaps development teams thrive under a new process that eschews archaic top-down mandates, favouring self-directed iterations based on real user feedback. Alternatively, efficiencies emerge from judiciously outsourcing certain production operations to specialised vendors rather than weighing down the core workforce. An entrenched obsession with endlessly optimising form for ever-evolving function becomes a powerful catalyst accelerating innovation capability across all levels.

To illustrate the perils of shape triumphing over substance, consider the cautionary tale of once-mighty corporations like Kodak, Blockbuster, or Sears. Each dominated its category for decades by controlling an extensive network of physical assets before failing to adapt their dated form for new digital realities. Their formidable centralised business models, finely tuned to maximise previous functions, calcified into innovation-repelling stumbling blocks. Fatally banked on nostalgic forms, they catastrophically neglected evolving function.

Even corporate iconoclasts renowned for fostering innovation understand the necessity of continuous structural retooling. Google has repeatedly rearranged itself around emerging strategic priorities by acquiring Android to dominate mobile or spinning off moonshot ventures like Waymo under restructured parent Alphabet. Amazon shook up retail operations by developing advanced logistics infrastructure optimised for e-commerce’s meteoric rise. Netflix transformed itself from a mail-order DVD rental service into a global streaming behemoth by rebuilding its entire content delivery architecture for an on-demand digital age. These industry disruptors ruthlessly reshaped organisational form at every phase to properly equip new innovation-focused functions, from adjusting team structures to chartering distinct subsidiaries. Their relentless efforts to shed obsolete baggage constantly realigned their institutional shape with their purposeful innovation-led bearings.

For organisations of any size hoping to compete in our dynamic modern economy, embracing Louis Sullivan’s timeless “form follows function” wisdom represents a crucial first step. Outmoded structures too often breed complacency and preserve the status quo. Only by zealously remodelling processes, systems, and frameworks to facilitate new value creation, will enterprises construct an enduring culture for innovation.

While daunting, this custom refitting sparks the continual rebirth and renewal required to conceive groundbreaking solutions consistently. To thrive demands the humility to continuously demolish and rebuild – shaping your organisational form to Build a Culture FOR Innovation optimally.

So, now I’ve got you thinking…

If you want to explore how me and my team can support you and your organisation on your innovation journey, whether that’s embedding the right approach to Leading FOR Innovation, helping you build the right culture, or designing the right innovation-led strategy, get in touch and let’s chat.


This article was originally posted on crisbeswick.com