Building Innovation Communities #3: Cultivate Culture
The third part of a series documenting lessons learned from a decade building up the Aging2.0 innovation community
“Cultivating culture” is, it seems, a tautology. Culture is always cultivated - the question is whether you’re growing weeds or flowers. You may get lucky, but without active pruning you may find yourself hacking away with a dire infestation of Japanese knotweed. We were lucky but had strong foundations; the topic of our innovation community was innovation to help older people live better lives, and this tended to attract people who were, you know, nice.
Having said that, we spanned a number of dimensions, each with a variety of cultures:
Technology: ‘Digital native’ tech startup founders and ‘digital immigrants’ in senior care environments.
Geography: Our claim - which was glorious, ambitious and mostly true - was that we were a global network. We needed to speak every language (English being the default for HQ, but Chapters could speak whatever they wanted), but also ensure relevance for local people, not stay aloof as ‘globalists’.
Business: We were structured as a for-profit, but most of what we did would be considered non-profit - i.e. community building, focusing on needs and impact not profit, sharing information for free, recruiting and managing volunteers. We liked the speed and flexibility of establishing the company as a Delaware LLC, making decisions and moving fast, and did have a hope that we’d land on a business model that could scale up. But we also didn’t have external funding and backing to set up as a non-profit, and didn’t relish the regulatory oversight and restrictions that would bring.
Here’s are are 8 culture ‘to-dos’ that I took away for those looking to build a positive culture in innovation communities:
Give more than you take
Pick a persona
‘Game face’ matters
Share stories to create narratives
Criticize ideas (not people)
Protect people’s time
Give more than you take. It’s a small world and people have long memories. As Tim O’Reilly puts it “create more value than you take”. This mental model is not only the key to an innovation community but for successful capitalism. It’s related to the concept of consumer surplus - consumers receive more value than the price of the good they pay for. Consumer value is a complex topic - this HBR article identifies 30 different types of it, organized into four categories of functional, emotional, life-changing and social impact. In our case it was almost inevitable we would create more than we captured, since we didn’t charge memberships (apart from corporate sponsors) and ticket prices to events were mostly free, though we did charge for OPTIMIZE. The challenge then is around sustainability; see previous post on the topic.
Pick a persona. Channel the culture of the most important stakeholder in your ecosystem. The dimensions above all come with a multitude of different personas attached - the fast-moving startup founder, the well-meaning nurse, the stressed family caregiver, the Japanese insurance company executive or the Australian government official. This is a recipe for organizational schizophrenia if ever there was one. We found it most natural to channel the energy and vibe of the ‘agetech startup founder’ - a novel concept in 2012. It combines the startup hustle with a desire to make a difference in the world, often due to a personal experience of dysfunctional or painful experiences with an older family member. We treated these startups like royalty - after all they were few and far between at the start, and one of our contributions was making innovation, pilots and startup pitch events mainstream in an industry that really hadn’t seen startups before.
‘Game face’ matters. Regardless of what we did during the year behind closed doors, or how long we agonized over the wording of a newsletter or blog post, it was the annual OPTIMIZE gathering that shaped people’s perception of the organization and how it’s being run. People pick up on the vibe of the leaders and volunteers - are they having a good time? Are they confident in what they’re doing? Most big events such as these are sausage factories - all sorts of crazy stuff goes into it (and ours were no exception), but what matters is the end product. A feeling of blind panic and gut-chilling fear generally set in about 6 weeks before the event, happily then being eclipsed by a surge of adrenalin and joy come event time. I imagine it’s somewhat similar to the Olympics - people see the thrilling finale, not the months of slog.
Share stories to build narrative. Similarly, internally, the team’s narrative will be shaped by which stories - the good, bad and downright random - are celebrated and made part of the lore. Leaders highlight the kinds of stories and outcomes that represent the organization they want to see. We had a few recurring stories, such as when we had a jetlagged (drunk? high?) startup founder turn his 3 minute company pitch into a 10 minute diatribe on global politics. We had to gently but firmly intervene to liberate him of the microphone and keep the event on track. Our event management was normally less visible than that, but it conveyed the message to the team there’s only so much we can afford to indulge event the most talented founder.
Criticize ideas (not people). As the saying goes, if two people in a meeting agree with each other, then you’ve got one too many people. Put a group of smart, passionate people in a room and tell them to change the world and you’ll inevitably get a difference of opinion for what needs to be done. We had inevitable disagreements, but came together when it counted, and ideas were all the better for it. On reflection, I think the best place is to have a culture that is guided by the ideas of creative abrasion (e.g. Pixar’s high-hit rate culture as highlighted in Collective Genius) which is rather similar to psychological safety. Both these ideas force a high quality output but maintain personal respect and dignity - criticizing ideas, not people. This relates to a high level of trust - do the team members trust each other, and does the community (in our case Chapter Ambassadors) trust HQ to support them and let them shine?
Protect people’s time. Just because people are often not paying top dollar, it doesn’t mean their time is free. On the contrary - it’s even more important that people giving up their time to attend or volunteer at an event have a productive and valuable experience. Just because it’s volunteer run it doesn’t need to be low quality.
Celebrate success. When people are working for free, you don’t have (and likely can’t afford) annual bonus payouts, which means you need to get creative about celebrating successes. We saw two kinds of success - process success (yay, you become a Chapter Ambassador!) and substance success (the company that you brought in just closed a big deal). It was easier for us to manage the former, as stats and process metrics were easier to come by, so the latter tended to be rather ad hoc. It would have been ideal to have a better system that tracked substantive outputs (e.g.our network has now helped 10,000 caregivers…). This gets into another conversation about metrics, but suffice to say there’s a lot more that could be done here.
Beware burnout. It’s amazing how hard people work - whether they’re being paid or not - when there’s a clear mission and evidence of impact. The downside is that self-care suffers, more of an issue in the workaholic cultures of USA and Japan than Europe. Generally an innovation community will be loosely organized and not have the kinds of safeguards and HR handrails that come with a corporate organisation.
As they say, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Getting the culture right in an innovation community requires a delicate balance of the professional and the personable, the visionary and the tactical, and many more dichotomies. And that’s one of the reasons working in innovation communities is so rewarding.