Authentic Informal Leaders Transform Culture

For innovation to flourish, enable a creative culture throughout your organization

In today’s hyper-competitive landscape, innovation is essential for an organization to thrive.

We live in a fast-paced world, where even the biggest companies can be disrupted, rest in peace… Blockbuster and Kodak. Making a company innovative from the roots up is no easy task. To lead like an innovator means investing in the right mindset, culture, incentives, and support throughout your organization. It means looking beyond a single brilliant idea and instead creates an iterative system focused on the creation of value and scalable growth.

It’s a company culture where innovation is welcomed as part of the work, rather than as an interruption of it. If everyone isn’t on board with innovation then the resistance to change won’t allow for true success. Many established organizations have a status quo culture that causes one to prefer avoiding loss over winning. This attitude is a barrier to change and holds innovation back.

The truly hard part is transforming your culture to best enable innovation to flow and sustain it for the long term. Trying to change an entire company’s culture is a superhuman feat. I subscribe to the view toward building off of current positive cultural qualities and making them stronger. Changing an entire culture is too hard, fraught with peril and extremely risky.

This article leverages the framework from Jon R. Katzenbach’s great book, “A Critical Few: Energize Your Company’s Culture by Choosing What Really Matters”. The book argues that an organization’s culture already contains the components it needs to fuel successful transformation. Leaders can affect lasting, positive cultural change by encouraging behaviors that promote creativity and innovation. One does not need to replace the old culture but needs to find the aspects of it that can help you move forward. I highly recommend reading the details in his book.

Let’s look at this book through the lens of improving innovation in the organization.

As the name suggests, Katzenbach suggests focusing on a few critical things rather than trying to boil the ocean. Keep it simple, make progress, iterate. He frames his approach in four areas:

  1. A Few Critical Traits to best reflect on what is valued currently
  2. A Few Critical Behaviors in order to cultivate innovation
  3. A Few Authentic Informal Leaders (AILs)
  4. Measuring Cultural Action


The focus for this article discusses the behaviors helpful to encourage innovation.

My favourite quotes from the book around behaviors…

People are much more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking than to think their way into a new way of acting. (Richard Pascale/The Power of Positive Deviance)

The idea is that changing behaviors, rather than mindsets, is the most practical way to intervene in an organisation’s culture is at the heart of the critical few approaches. Long-term organizational change efforts include simple, clear changes in specific behaviors. (Charles Duhigg/The Power of Habit)

Narrowing to a few critical behaviors is essential. Most efforts to address and change culture are too comprehensive, programmatic, esoteric and urgent.”

I’ll be more direct. Don’t expect to have an innovative culture by hanging posters and slogans of how innovative you’re going to be. Transformation happens in the trenches where people actually perform the work for the organization. Changed behavior, habitually sustained, equals changed mindset – simple, compelling and permanent.

In my mind, it’s giving everyone in the company the green light to think about what could be, not just do your job. Giving them room to think about solutions to the opportunities they see.

Useful behaviours to develop an innovation culture

  • Instil creative confidence without fear of rejection or failure
  • Encourage team members to share their perspectives
  • Build on other’s ideas with ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘no, but’
  • Active listening to build trust to demonstrate empathy
  • Start at the end to thoroughly understand the problem, not jumping at a solution
  • Foster continual learning and discovery
  • Share feedback on the status of ideas
  • Celebrate learning moments- they’re not failures, just steps in the discovery
  • Recognize each other for achievements, back-up and support teammates
  • Inspire relationships and collaboration between divisions and departments
  • Stimulate diversity in thinking, perspectives, and backgrounds to consult and collaborate 
  • Encourage others to reach beyond their comfort zone
  • Involve everyone to collect and discuss customer observations and insights
  • Hold people accountable for their actions and commitments

So what are the critical behaviors that would be successful for your organisation? You will be looking for behaviors that, when encouraged, will move your organization in the direction of your stated aspirations and your strategic intent. This is, in a nutshell, working with, rather than against the grain of your current culture.

One of the most powerful moments usually occurs when one leader turns to another and says, “What will you do differently, starting today?” The best leaders demonstrate the selected behaviors every day and at every opportunity. When the company leadership steps up and walks the talk, people take notice and then take action. A symbolic act is a deliberate, purposeful action taken by the leadership that sends a strong archetypal message.

These symbolic acts have a notable impact on the people in the organizations in which leaders serve—they catalyze and deepen emotional commitment to both the organization overall and to the leader as an individual. This kind of emotional commitment, over time, helps each person take similar chances, to act and behave in new ways that might feel unnatural at first but ultimately become rewarding and self-reinforcing.

Authentic Informal Leaders (AILs)

“When organizations are undergoing major challenges, such as strategic or operational transformation, engaging authentic informal leaders can help the greater organization accomplish what would otherwise be considered impossible.” This is one of Jon Katzenbach’s book’s most profound and simple truths.

AILs are the kinds of trusted individuals whose opinions and advice should guide you at every stage of your cultural journey. AILs are subsets of an organization who are influential, thanks not to their formal leadership role but to their total dedication to that organization’s mission and purpose. They reflect something strong about the overall traits of the larger whole and are capable of extraordinary acts. AILs are not on your executive team or highly placed on the org chart.

AILs are much more than just an ambassador role to share executive messages to the staff. This is not a one-way communication flow. The importance of the role lies in their ability to provide feedback and assist in crafting the transformation process. AILs can help leaders understand any skepticism the lurks at the lower levels.

Work with AILs should be ongoing throughout your culture transformation process, taking the form of a series of discussions. You will ask for AILs’ feedback on leaders’ ideas. You will also ask them how they achieve their goals. Working with the energy of AILs is the best place to dig into cultural obstacles and to determine how you can align strategy, operating model, and culture. AILs are also the very best source of ideas for how to attach the high-minded aspirations of any culture program to real, tangible business results.

Continuous improvement and innovation is vital for an organization’s growth and success. A collaborative, creative and engaged team is foundational to enable innovation efforts. Ensuring a culture that supports innovation is challenging. However, by thoroughly understanding your organizational traits and behaviors and focusing on transforming the few critical behaviors desired,  provides a process to get the fly-wheel moving and making progress on transforming your culture.

Ric Pratte, Innovation Catalyst and US-based 100%Open Associate

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