The Cultural Barriers to Innovation

Every nation, company and increasingly more educational and governmental institutions seem to be recognizing that innovation is only way forward. If they want to retain their presence in this increasingly crowded, competitive and resource-crunched world, they need to develop new ways of doing things, making things, and thinking about things. But while it’s easy to recognize that innovation is an advantage, accomplishing it is easier said than done, especially since there are some highly culturally entrenched barriers to innovation.

The most primary requirement for innovation is the willingness to question and take risks. As the author of a recent Businessweek article on Innovation in China, Hal Gregerson (also co-author of the The Innovator’s DNA and professor at INSEAD) wrote:

Innovation, especially the disruptive type, comes from challenging the status quo, over and over. It comes from people making observations and being able to share them without fear of retribution. It comes from people talking to others who don’t see the world as they do. Finally, it comes from people willing to take risks, the inherent risks that go along with trying something no one else has ever tried before.

Gregerson goes on to write that, “If a country (or company) injects excessive fear into a system, risk-taking evaporates, experiments shrivel, and disruptive ideas fail to emerge.” This is why, he argues, China may not realize its great innovation ambitions, since its policies and cultural norms are not designed to allow for experimentation, questioning existing institutional frameworks, and do not accommodate failure. Besides this, as we mentioned in an earlier blog, there are various policies that restrict the kind of knowledge sharing and freedom of expression, and consequent creation of communities that are needed for innovation to flourish.

This is also the case in India, in a less organized way than China, where (as we discussed in the second Design Public in a panel on the Startup Ecology in India) there is a culturally and socially ingrained fear of failure that tends to limit experimentation, and hence innovation. There are also strict hierarchies in society that impact the freedom of expression and democratization of decision-making, which again act as barriers to innovation. As Rishikesha T. Krishnan, author of the book Jugaad to Systematic Innovation wrote, “Indian organisations face barriers to innovation that have their origin in Indian society and culture such as poor teamwork, [and] the enduring importance of upward hierarchical progression.”

While India’s barriers may seem less institutionalized than Gregerson’s analysis of China’s “Great Innovation Wall,” these are nonetheless long-standing socially-ingrained attitudes that need to change before we can actually be considered an Innovation Economy. There are also various policy and governance-related barriers to innovation, of course, but these cultural barriers remain the most difficult to overcome, wicked problems that we need to figure solutions towards.

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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