Interested in learning more about innovation culture? Leadership and the motivation of innovation teams are among the topics that MaRS Verge will cover in the “Innovation Intensive” sessions at the MaRS Verge conference on March 1. Get the inside scoop on corporate innovation and intrapreneurship by subscribing to Verge Insider.

Alan Smith is obsessed with design, business and the ways we do them. A design-trained entrepreneur, he created the Value Proposition Canvas with Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, the breakthrough design for Business Model Generation, which has sold one million copies in 36 languages. Alan also co-authored Value Proposition Design. He co-founded Strategyzer, where he works with an amazing team to create tools and content that help people make stuff customers want. His company works with enterprises, small- and mid-sized businesses, incubators and institutions.

Q&A with Alan Smith of Strategyzer

We asked Alan a few questions to get a sneak peek at what we could expect from his upcoming talk on “Designing an Innovation Culture in Established Companies” at MaRS Verge.

What is an innovation culture?  Why would a company want an innovation culture?

Every successful business model and value proposition eventually expires. Then what do you do? You need to develop new growth engines. How do you do that? By having people with the right mindset working within the right cultural drivers to produce that outcome. It isn’t a secret sauce: innovation culture simply enables the behaviours required for innovation results.

What do you think is the biggest challenge established companies face in designing an innovation culture?

It’s fashionable to bash established companies and say they can’t innovate once they get past a certain size, but it’s just not true. Established companies are great at working with an existing model to solve the problems of repeatability and consistency required for scale. This culture is not equipped to deal with the problems associated with inventing new growth engines. “Invent vs. improve” really reflects the two opposite ends of the spectrum. One of the biggest challenges is admitting that a culture that is working very well to “improve” won’t work to “invent.”

What factors contribute to companies being able to successfully overcome barriers in designing an innovation culture?

The mindset, processes and cultural drivers of the teams/people focused on innovation projects are key factors. It’s brutally hard for most people to adopt a mindset of “my ideas are wrong and I need to prove it,” which is really something they need to feel and understand. It’s also hard to run efficient, repeatable, systematic innovation projects that aren’t essentially gambling and hoping for one big win amongst the losses. Lastly, it’s really hard to remove blockers to innovation, especially when they have been effective in producing results on business models already at scale.

What tools are available for companies wanting to redesign their culture?

If you asked people, they’d say culture is kind of like pornography—they know it when they see it!! It is a squishy, indefinable thing that people throw around without everyone actually agreeing on what it is. Dave Gray’s work with us at Strategyzer tried to go beyond that and create a tool to map what a culture is and what you’d like it to be. We called this tool The Culture Map and it helps you look at three layers of culture. The top is what you can easily see: the outcomes. A little harder to pin down are the behaviours that produce those outcomes. Then even deeper, you’ve got drivers that enable or block behaviour in the company.

We hear from experts that business model innovation is one of the most significant challenges facing established companies. Is this/how is this tied to culture?

Established companies were always better at improving than inventing, but that used to be less of a problem. You could pick a business model from a shortlist of the ones available and it would last for decades. Today, just look at publishing, music, pharma…all their business models are expiring! All business models are turning over faster and faster. So now if you want to survive, you need to be able to develop new growth engines and innovate new business models, and you need a culture equipped for the task.

Can your company keep up? Learn more from Alan at MaRS Verge. And read more from Alan and his team:

Jon E Worren

Jon E Worren is the senior director of venture and corporate programs at MaRS. He is responsible for identifying new innovation and entrepreneurship practices and creating tools and resources that help both intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs to be more successful. Jon is also an instructor in Entrepreneurship at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. He holds a Master of Science in Media & Communication from London School of Economics and a Master of Science in Business and Economics from the Norwegian School of Management. See more…