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Building a Culture of Social Innovation

18 January 2017 at 8:05 am
Mike Davis
Mike Davis, founder of Purposeful, explains how a positive workplace culture fosters social innovation in an organisation.

Mike Davis | 18 January 2017 at 8:05 am


Building a Culture of Social Innovation
18 January 2017 at 8:05 am

Mike Davis, founder of Purposeful, explains how a positive workplace culture fosters social innovation in an organisation.

LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman recently presented a “Disobedience” award at an MIT conference on research and social innovation. The award for social innovation went to “those working to right society’s wrongs”.

This award evolved from an original blog post by Joi Ito from March 2016 on the same subject. Ito makes the case that social innovation requires a willingness of people to question the rules and systems, particularly where they appear to be producing unfair or unreasonable outcomes.

This made me think about the role that trust and courage play in the workplace. Are these key elements that organisations need to promote social innovation? Are we creating environments where people speak out if they can see things are not working?

  1. Trust

If we want our people to speak up when there is an issue, they need to feel safe and to feel that their views are valued, wanted and actioned. Embracing trust allows you to find some great allies in the most unlikely places.

A true ally will give you honest feedback and tell you if there is something wrong with your idea or a way to enhance it. This honest exchange will then elevate the relationship and allow future safe open exchanges.

Wharton Professor Adam Grant makes the point that our workplace “challengers” or adversaries are our best friends when it comes to developing robust and creative ideas.

In Originals, Grant profiles Bridgewater Associates and their unique culture which prioritised original thinking, trust, honesty and openness above all else.

One of the guiding principles at Bridgewater Associates is: “Don’t let ‘loyalty’ stand in the way of truth and openness.” This approach welcomes dissent, evaluates performance based on it and may even sanction people for not dissenting enough!

  1. Courage

We must reward our people’s acts of courage. Courage is being able to admit that you’re wrong. But courage taken to the next level is being thankful that your own people are able to, and want to, challenge your thinking.

Courage is embracing failure and knowing that every failure brings you closer to success. Thomas Edison said it best: 

“I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work.”

Courage is often considered a character trait, but I’d rather think of it as an attribute that can be cultivated and encouraged in the right environment. Everyone is capable of acts of courage and acting courageously.

We can express this thanks internally to all our people and create a space where the best ideas have the room to breathe and grow. To take this full circle, these ideas can be championed at all levels and our people can take ownership of them.

Since 1981, Apple has given an annual award to people who exemplify courage by challenging Steve Jobs, and promoting them to run major divisions of the company.

  1. Social innovation

It’s hard to explain social innovation, but a good start might be to say it is the ability to leverage social capital to create inspired and passionate communities.

Organisations that foster social innovation build critical emergent, adaptive and generative abilities to solve problems. Knode‘s diagram provides an excellent explanation of the drivers and potential of social innovation.

Here a few examples of organisations that have been able to socially innovate through cultures of openness, trust and courage to question:

Santropol Roulant is a meals-on-wheels organisation that also runs its own sustainable composting operation. This is what their people say about them: “It’s an organisation that focuses on the individual, on the human at the centre,” and: “This place grows goodness.”

Adobe are known for their ability to create innovative software and service solutions. Part of the reason for this is their trusting culture, where managers adopt the role of “coaches” and trust their people to use their talent and skills to produce the best creative solutions. Risk taking and failure are encouraged and never penalised.

Warby Parker makes beautiful glasses frames and prescription lenses. To ensure their early success, the founders of Warby Parker instigated regular 360 review sessions. This ensures that open communication, trust and honesty are built into business as usual and form part of the culture. Co-founder Neil Blumenthal attributes this innovation as core to developing Warby Parker’s open and honest culture.

Hopefully, the examples above have provided good food for thought and possible actions in what can be some of the biggest challenges for developing a workplace culture of social innovation fostering trust and courage.

About the author: Mike Davis is the founder of Purposeful, a social impact advisory dedicated to empowering businesses to grow their social impact and performance by adopting a purpose-driven approach to community, partnerships, strategy and people and culture. Mike is a former health, social and public policy adviser. Recently, he has worked as a senior advisor in government and has a Masters of Law (Human Rights). He is interested in business and social impact strategy and innovative approaches to social value and wellbeing measurement and evaluation. He is a board member at the Awesome Foundation Melbourne and a recent facilitator at Peer Academy. Start a conversation with Mike at

Mike Davis  |  @mikedav84

Mike Davis is a for-purpose executive leader, chief podcaster at Humans of Purpose and a board director at not for profits SIMNA Ltd and L2R Dance.

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