Innovation: How to build a workplace culture

Innovation: How to build a workplace culture

Guest Bloggers | 8 November 2019

Henry Rowling, co-founder of Flying Cars, looks at what makes a workplace culture and says that innovation starts with your people.

What makes a workplace culture? Fascinatingly this article suggests you can understand what an organisation’s culture is like by looking at the microwave in the shared kitchen. This might be a little simplistic – but there is a deal of truth in it. If your shared areas are dirty, untidy and unkempt – it’s likely your staff are stressed out and overworked. A more conventional definition would be something like:

A workplace culture is the shared values, belief systems, attitudes and the set of assumptions that people in a workplace share.

A lot has been written recently on how charities need to innovate more within their fundraising portfolios in order to build deeply engaging moments that deliver value for supporters. The reasons for this are, I think, well understood – so I won’t rehash them here. However, in order for innovation to flourish the cultural conditions within your organisation must be right. If those conditions are right, then work and teams that use innovation methodologies can help you solve the hardest problems you face. Without the right culture, your innovation strategy will be eaten for breakfast and staff become dispirited. I spoke about this issue last week at the IoF Innovation Event at the Resolution Foundation but here is a summary for those that weren’t able to make it.

Innovation, like so many aspects of a healthy working environment, starts with your people. If everyone looks the same it’s likely new ideas will follow a similar well-trodden path. Diverse workforces develop diverse ideas.

Free, equip and empower your staff. Bottlenecks in decision making slow things down and you will never achieve the much-heralded but seldom observed nirvana of ‘fail fast, fail often’

Encourage staff to develop x10 thinking. Incremental +10% thinking will never radically re-engineer your programme. I’m sure we’ve all seen budgets that are essentially ‘last year’s income +10%’ – this must be discouraged. Nothing will change.

Speak about failure – learn from what hasn’t worked. This has to come from the top, if your CEO and senior leadership team don’t talk about their own failures then don’t expect more junior staff to do the same. They won’t trust that they won’t be judged unfavourably and damage their career prospects. Every time you bury a failure and shelve under ‘never speak of this again’ you drastically increase the chance the failure will be repeated soon in the future and more resource wasted. By learning rapidly from what didn’t work – you increase the chances of future success.

Be aware of cultural red flags

If you recognise any of the following – your culture will not be particularly supportive of innovation:

  • No time in the day for actual work (too many meetings)
  • We marvel at our own complexity
  • Opinions matter more than data
  • Bottlenecks in decision making
  • Processes get in the way of the work
  • Diversity isn’t valued
  • We are addicted to planning
  • Teams are not cross-functional or cross-disciplinary


But don’t worry - there are simple adjustments you can make to create a more fertile environment:

  • Recognize and celebrate noble failure
  • Replace ‘is it perfect’ with ‘is it safe to try?’
  • Create SLAM teams on critical problems: self-managing, lean, audacious, multi-disciplinary
  • Allow people to hold multiple roles on multiple teams
  • Create a skills database to help teams find knowledge across the organisation
  • Trade perfect execution for constant learning and& iteration
  • Invite everyone to spend 20% of their time working on what inspires them
  • Break work into sprints to learn faster and reduce risk


Some of these ideas and many more are contained in the fabulous Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. To build a culture that nurtures innovation you need to be curious, networked and insight-led. Try some of the ideas above to get Henry Rowlingyour workplace revolution started. The future of our planet depends on it.

Henry Rowling is co-founder of Flying Cars – an innovation, insight and strategy collective for charities and cause-driven
brands. Henry has over a decade of experience working in house for some of the UK’s leading charities in strategy, innovation, product development and digital.





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