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How cultural currents drive innovation

Illustration: Wade Wu

Culture often steers innovation, says TRA's Colleen Ryan. And that has implications far beyond just business.

“Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.”

Theodore Levitt – Professor at Harvard Business School and editor of the Harvard Business Review

Of the two – creativity or innovation – most people seem to consider that creativity is the most difficult – thinking up new ideas seems hard and the domain of specially gifted creative people. But, with the right framework and inspiration, most people are indeed very creative and we see wonderfully surprising ideas emerge all the time.

For all the good ideas, however, there are many more failures. Why? Because implementation fails when there isn’t a relevant framework in place to ensure success. The exponential energy we mine when driven to succeed rapidly dissipates in the implementation stage when we don’t have a clear framework to guide the process. For every ten people who die on Mount Everest, nine of them die coming down. There is energy, hope and belief on the way up, but getting down requires resilience and a framework to keep everything on track.

So, more often than not, it’s at the innovation or implementation stage when ideas falter, or we take them in the wrong direction, or, at worst, dilute their original creativity. And that is precisely because the original creativity phase didn’t have a framework that would carry through to the innovation phase.

So what framework should we use?

Clearly, human needs are a good starting point.  But Steve Job’s infamous mantra – "Research has no role in innovation, because people don’t know what they want until you give it to them" – stymies the idea that people can tell us what their needs are and we simply have to make something that meets them.

Another common structure is a product pipeline management (PPM) system. But, as with all systemised processes, they can become a governor, not a facilitator. There is a danger of the system restraining creativity too quickly in order to for it to fit the system, resulting in product tweaks and minor developments instead of transformational ideas.

So what about the ideas that lead to true innovation? Where, under the aegis of the PPM, did Nespresso emerge? Surely it was born from the trend toward individualisation and customisation. And Airbnb was clearly driven by more than merely the desire to travel. Experiences now trump ‘things’, and tourists don’t have experiences; travelers do—travellers staying in real people’s homes. Innovations such as these are transformational because they surf the zeitgeist of cultural change, future proofing the innovation.

A framework that creates a cultural compass not only acts as an inspiration for creativity, it goes on to guide the innovation process. But why a cultural framework rather than something else?

Firstly, because people are strongly influenced by cultural context in everything they do. Cultural currents help them steer their way through life’s complexities and the myriad decisions they have to make each day.

Imagine three people having lunch together. They make different choices from the menu. One views the menu through a lens of wellness – optimising mind and body. The second person is into experiential living and foodie-ism and chooses the item with the most interesting flavours and novel ingredients. The third person is influenced by the sustainability trend and asks where and how the fish was caught. Each views the menu through a different cultural lens and it affects their decision-making by giving them a framework for their choices.

Secondly, regarding the future, people respond to cultural currents and shifts by readjusting their view of the world and what is possible. We are not good at seeing ourselves in the future, but we can imagine other people in the future, and it’s easier to see how other people’s lives might be different and what new products or services they might be using. Cultural currents inspire and facilitate this process.

If we use cultural themes as a context to create a structure for new product and service development, we not only get a more productive and open minded idea generation process, we also know that any ideas that emerge can be aligned with developing trends. By the time the idea gets to market we will be introducing it into a cultural context that is ready to receive it.

And, people like to do what others do, so they align with growing trends because others are too. By developing ideas that fit within a growing trend, when that trend gains momentum, people will see others adopting ideas that have originated from the same cultural shift. The thrill and risk of the new is tempered by the comfort of familiarity and reassurance of others doing the same thing.

Cultural currents drive innovation

Our culture changes constantly. And, most of the world’s great innovations emerged in response to significant cultural changes. It is no coincidence that the fashion world created trouser suits for women at a time when growing numbers of women were entering the “man’s world” of higher education and business.

Another, more objective, example: the volume of global patent applications is closely correlated to significant cultural change. These changes include underlying uncertainty vs. security in society; changes in views of masculinity vs. femininity; the move to individualism vs. collectivism (as experienced in the UK during the Thatcher period, which saw an unprecedented rise in badge brand products and luxury goods); and distance vs. proximity to sources of power (China is currently experiencing a huge spike in patent applications as private business has moved much closer to the source of political power).

Although these variables help explain the overall level of innovation in a particular society at a particular time, cultural trends also help drive specific market innovation.

A cultural compass steers the process

To create a relevant context, you need to create a cultural compass for your category – identifying the cultural currents that your idea can hitch a ride on, and examine how those currents are shaped by local influences – and formulate a creative framework. And that framework needs to persist beyond idea generation to the entire innovation process through to execution where we can pick up on the codes and iconography of the currents we are surfing. These currents often operate at a global level but are nuanced to varying degrees at a local level.

An example of a company recognising the importance of local cultural context is Unilever, which is undergoing reorganisation to shift resources to local markets to better align with customers’ cultural identity and lifestyle. Global brands won’t disappear and the cost-benefits of developing new products for a global market massively outweigh the advantage of locally based innovation in the FMCG sector, but most brands and products aren’t global and have the advantage of being developed in a specific cultural context.

Look at the Whittaker’s local advantage, or Speights versus the global brand equivalents. These iconic kiwi brands tap into a Kiwi psyche. Which doesn’t mean they are immune to the bigger cultural currents swirling around the globe. Whittaker’s innovation reflects growing trends in experiential foodie-ism and Speights’ mid strength beer is leveraging a specifically local spin on ‘wellbeing’ and moderation, partially a result of the recently reduced blood alcohol level for driving.

Better to use culture than be used by it

Although we have choices about what framework we use for innovation, it’s a fact of life that cultural currents will continue to flow and provide an overarching landscape into which new products are launched. Cultural shifts will influence how people behave and what decisions they make whether it suits our plans or not. So we may as well use those currents for our own ends to inspire and guide our innovation.

Colleen Ryan is head of strategy at TRA.