Can Mission Statements Foster a Culture of Innovation?

Who hasn’t seen them — the mission statements and corporate values that are literally presented as the “writings on the wall” of companies around the world? They're statements like, "We are innovative." "We think outside the box." Or sometimes they're even phrased as a command: "Think." "Think differently." "Think outside of the box.”
Forbes Coaches Council





  This article was first published on Forbes.   


The eagerness by which companies seek to leverage such “self-storying” to influence their employees evokes a feeling that people could be branded into creativity, productiveness and agile mindsets. But does telling people to think really get them to think or be more innovative?


From neuroscience and cognitive linguistics, we know that words and word organization can have an enormous effect on the brain. Negative word choices, for example, can create anxiety or make us depressed. They can slow down learning and used consistently, they can even alter our brains. In the same manner, we can use positive verbiage to help cultivate a transformative, visionary and solution-oriented mindset. The question is just how.


To answer this question, it's crucial to understand what makes mission statements and values effective in general.


Researchers have found that the general effectiveness of mission statements depends on "(1) the rationale underlying their development; (2) the process of their development and implementation; (3) their content and form; and (4) individual attitudes toward the mission statement." That means whether or not a mission statement manages to deeply impact an organization depends on its genuineness and individual efforts as well as collective efforts over time.


Once the organizational ground rules are covered, however, we can explore which types of framing might lend themselves to consistently fueling an innovation culture. I've found through my study of cognitive linguistics and my experience as a change, growth and innovation consultant that such framings work best if they can make people in an organization think — and keep thinking over and over again. Put simply: A mission-driven culture of innovation really depends on the levels at which we use our values and conversations to fire up our neurons.


1. Consistently ask, 'How might we?'


Instead of just repeating a slogan or a value, take the thought behind it and discuss as a group how you might put it into practice. Nurture these collective discussions by making them a regular part of your team meetings. Make them part of the DNA of your company, your group or your team. Hold them at least every three weeks. Keep them future-oriented, self-directed and inspiring a can-do mode. The result is often a co-creative thought process that seeks to shape a desired future. Ultimately, that’s what innovation is all about.


2. Follow up by exploring, 'What is the one thing we don’t ever want to be?'


Reflecting on the boundaries of your work and how you want to do it is as important as knowing how you want to practice your innovation values as a group. Let’s say you don’t ever want to be boring or you don’t ever want to be falling behind technological developments. How would you ensure that those things don't happen? What hurdles do you see on the way, and how can you overcome them?


3. Use the power of paradoxes and thought pairings.


I've found that inviting teams to deliberately think about paradoxes sparks ideas as the mind automatically has to fill the gaps. A seeming paradox or thought pairing could be "decisiveness despite uncertainty." Discuss your guidelines for taking decisive action. Also, discuss how uncertainty makes you and your group or everyone in your company feel. How do you usually react to uncertainty? What are the pitfalls and ruts your teams often fall into? Of course, you can try the same with any of your chosen values. The general questions are: What are seeming opposites or pitfalls, and how can we use our collective brainpower to create solutions?


4. Transform your brainstorming sessions.


True brainstorming isn't a linear cognitive process. Contrarily, it's an intuitive concept. In other words, it's easy to entirely undermine the power of brainstorming through rationalizing. Instead, try the following: Ask a question, and put a timer on the table for answers: "How might we address this issue or potential? Ten seconds. Ready? Go." Yes, 10 seconds is not a lot of time, but the best ideas are often born under pressure. To build more trust — one of the most important innovation-driving factors — don’t forget to incentivize the seemingly most absurd ideas. You might be surprised by how often you end up using them.


5. Allow for creative tension.


One of the biggest roadblocks for an innovative mindset is consensus. My own research revealed that cultural values and mission statements, as well as the sense of who we are, are often controversially discussed and debated in successful companies. Try to affirm each other over controversies, even regarding your mission or values. Thinking doesn't mean repeating values, and it doesn't mean agreeing with each other. Thinking means rubbing each other the wrong way and challenging ideas. Through such tension, novelty and innovation can be sparked — and your team or company can grow in the process.


To get back to the original question, can mission statements foster a culture of innovation? From a neuroscientific perspective, they can. Is it easy? Absolutely not.

While there is some neuroscientific method to the madness, I've found that the method and the madness need to become a consistent part of your team and company practices. Dedicated and focused collective sensemaking processes nurture a culture of innovation. Which words exactly you put in your mission statements and write on the walls almost become irrelevant then. The questions will always be: What do your people make out of these mission statements, and how much do you as a company encourage, trust and empower your people to use the one thing only they can use to drive innovation — their brains?



Erika Jacobi, Ph.D.  is the managing director of LC GLOBAL Consulting Inc. Erika specializes in agile organization design at scale. She is a C-Suite adviser and Top Executive Coach for organizational change, growth, and innovation matters. Her design and organization development principles are geared to translate enterprise agility into organizational reality. Read Erika Jacobi, Ph.D.'s full executive profile here.


Topics: Culture Of Innovation, Agile, corporate culture, Neuro-Sciences

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