Understanding the Role of Culture and Innovation in a Globally Distributed Workforce

Creativity and innovation are universally considered as positive phenomena.

Person holding a glass earth with a butterfly on top.
Every culture esteems creativity in its own way.

Moreover, innovation psychology researchers conclude that both creativity and innovation are well-distributed across all global cultures. 

However, that doesn’t mean that one culture innovates the same as another culture. How companies approach innovation and what aspects of innovation are prized most vary depending on prevailing cultural values. For companies with multinational teams, innovation management must account for the cultural norms of the team members in all countries to maximize innovation.

What are the cultural indicators of how individuals approach creativity and innovation? The fundamental ones are prevailing norms of individualism versus collectivism, acceptance of social stratification, and cultural tolerance for deviation from the norm. 

Individualism and Collectivism

Individualistic cultures, which are more common in Western countries, include characteristics like:

  • High value attached to independence
  • Emphasis on individual rights
  • More emphasis on uniqueness
  • Value attached to self-sufficiency

In more collectivist cultures, which are more common in the Far East, attitudes like the following are more prevalent:

  • Emphasis on unity and selflessness
  • Teamwork
  • Doing what’s best for the group or society
  • Focus on community more than self-sufficiency

While there is no need for rigid stereotyping, it behooves international innovation teams to understand differences in cultural values among team members, and then to innovate strategically in light of them.

Cultural Tolerance for Deviation

Some cultures have tighter cultural norms, while others have looser ones. In so-called tight cultures, social norms are powerful, and there is less tolerance for deviation from norms. In “loose” cultures, social norms are less powerful, and individuals have greater freedom of expression. There is also more tolerance for deviation from social rules.

Understanding cultural norms helps with innovation management on international teams.

Tightness or looseness of social norms doesn’t affect how creative or innovative people are, but these qualities can affect how individuals react in collaborative situations. The creativity is there, in other words, and innovation psychology and cultural understanding are the keys to unlocking it.

Novelty and Usefulness in Creativity

How people are creative can vary from one culture to another. Innovations are typically characterized by novelty and usefulness. Cultural studies have found that while cultures around the world are creative, people in Far Eastern cultures are more creative in situations where usefulness is valued more highly than novelty. 

Novelty prioritizes ideas that are “outside the box” of traditional norms, and in tighter and more collectivist cultures, individuals may not be willing to step outside those norms. However, they more than make up for it in terms of “usefulness” innovations. These ideas are innovative in that they provide practical, effective ways to meet needs. 

Innovation management that works across cultural boundaries must account for cultural differences, but there are fundamentals that apply to all innovation efforts. Gary Pisano, professor at Harvard Business School identifies five “balancing acts” that all innovation efforts must perform:

  • Tolerating failure without tolerating incompetence
  • Experimentation in a context of discipline
  • Psychological safety that includes honesty and candor
  • Collaboration with individual accountability
  • Non-hierarchical, yet strong leadership

Innovation cultures are often made up of many counterbalancing forces, including cultural forces. The companies that strike the right balance while still accounting for cultural influences are the companies that are likeliest to see the best ideas brought to full fruition. If you would like to learn more, IdeaScale invites you to download our disruptive innovation infographic.

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