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Innovation in a Culture of Exceptionalism

Innovation in a Culture of Exceptionalism

We have worked with many organizations that consider themselves unique. They are, of course, correct just as any collection of people will surface unique qualities. Strong organizational cultures can generate an almost 'sixth sense' about the appropriate way to do things and a reflexive rejection of ideas that come from foreign contexts.


In Japan, there is a rarely used phrase, aun no kokyu, which bascially means the ability to breathe or think in unison with others. Non-verbal communication is central to Japanese life, and the ability to anticipate what is going to happen in social situations and then inhabit that same space is a very valuable one. Japanese companies follow a similar pattern as new recruits pick up the attitudes and behaviours they are intended to exhibit.


This shared social space allows for incredible leverage in achieving goals but can also cause difficulties when contexts change. Aun no kokyu can't simply be turned off, it must be gradually shaped to an emerging reality. Many of Japan's manufacturing successes are attributable to centuries of social structures that proved conducive to innovation and adaptation in the manufacturing sector.


Of course, this is in apparent contradiction to a previous article about relocating outside successes into new contexts, and the paradox is a significant one as Japan struggles with harmonizing their conditioned responses to events and the incredible shifts in the types of events they must deal with. Things are no different in North America, where institutions that favoured a factory model approach to social space are proving unsuccesful in the face of adaptive and complex challenges. We can either reshape our socializing institutions to accomodate the modern world or it becomes the accountability of individual organizations to build the adaptive capacity of their people.


A sense of exceptionalism offers significant benefits in unity of action and alignment toward shared goals. It also presents challenges as tacit assumptions are not questioned or examined. We have employed a variety of solutions to address the inflexibility of strong cultures, and by far the most successful is simple exposure to the culture of other organizations or places. The oil and gas industry, where some of our work is done, is a complex and subtle ecosystem and the more opportunities that organizations have -- upstream, downstream, or adding value along the way -- to experience directly the culture of other organizations, the more successful they become in dealing with adaptive challenges.


However, simple exposure is not enough. If employees are not given the tools to make sense of the new information it will be rejected. Additionally, if the experiences are not co-creative, a limited understanding of the culture can emerge based on the individual's unexamined assumptions.


We therefore recommend a process of appreciate inquiry that supports success across a range of adaptive challenges. When we are asking people to step into the 'unknown' we must ensure that they have the tools and confidence to deal with uncertainty. All too often, organization members offer the culture's conditioned responses to non-technical challenges. Crafting adaptive solutions requires a readiness of leaders outside of the patterned responses of their organizational life.


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