Why L&D Should Lead Organizational Culture Change

company culture

As the pressure of increasing change drives a need for organizational agility, the cry for innovation is heard. Executives recognize that there is a growing requirement for solving problems faster, for becoming more closely tied to customer needs, and for a tighter coupling between market changes and business response. And this requires considering what the organizational culture is. While seemingly disconnected, it turns out that there is a clear link between the atmosphere in an organization and the ability of that organization to tap into the power of its people, for organizations of any size.


Innovation is what drives the ability to adapt. New ideas need to be generated, tested, and implemented.  When you start with research, problem-solving, trouble-shooting, design, and other such activities, the answer isn’t known when you start. As a consequence, this is about learning. And to do innovation requires people working together (research has shown that the notion of the ’individual innovator’ is a myth). And how people work together is the fundamental crux of culture.  Innovation is a function of people working together effectively.

The saying “the room is smarter than the smartest person in the room” captures this notion, but there’s a caveat: if you manage the process right.  What the saying suggests is that you get a better solution out of tapping into the power of people.  What the caveat says is that there are constraints. For instance, the original model of brainstorming – bringing people together in a room, giving them a problem, and having them start discussing – doesn’t work. You need to allow time for individual reflection before you start sharing ideas, or the first expressed ideas will constrain the ideas of those who haven’t had time to process their own.

The key to getting good ideas is first to get lots of ideas.  The general approach is to generate ideas without evaluating them, deliberately searching out wild ideas, combining them in unexpected ways.  Mentally, we can think of searching a ‘space’ of possible solutions, and it’s easy to stay where the light’s good (where we’re familiar), but the best solutions may be in some dark corner. You increase the probability of a good solution by exploring broadly. That requires getting lots of lateral inputs. And those come from diverse ways of thinking.  Which means people need to speak up and be heard.

Just as certain practices affect the success of innovation, so too can the culture. If it isn’t safe to contribute, if you have a ‘Miranda organization’ (where anything you say can and will be held against you), people won’t share.  And as indicated, having people share is critical to getting the best ideas out.  So you want to find an environment in which people can contribute their best. And this means an environment, a culture, that has certain aspects.

Consequently, we need a definition of culture to determine the elements that must be addressed. Culture, quite simply, is the set of values of an organization, which manifests as a set of attitudes and behaviors. A wide variety of dimensions can be determined, such as how hierarchical relationships are from relatively equal to very structured, how independent individuals are in decision making, and more.

Elements of Culture

The culture of a learning organization, an organization that supports the best environment for contribution, has some defining features.  Garvin, Edmondson, & Gino (2005) suggested that the cultural environment had four necessary components that each contribute in a unique way:

  • Appreciation of differences
  • Openness to new ideas
  • Time for reflection
  • Psychological safety

First, you can’t just tolerate differences, you need to fundamentally value diversity. The breadth of ideas comes from divergent inputs, which requires divergent people. Differences that can contribute include cultural background, temperament, world-view, and more. One important difference is their skill set, what community of practice they come from. This can be challenging, but successfully tapping into this diversity will give the lateral inputs that are core to innovation.

You also need to be open to those new ideas.  If you hear “that’s not how we do it here”, you aren’t willing to consider alternate suggestions that could be better. These ideas need to be generated freely, then truly evaluated. Without the willingness to fairly evaluate those ideas, you won’t be able to discover emergent value.

Time for reflection is surprisingly challenging.  The empirical result, counter-intuitively, is that if you spend less than 100% of your time working, say 80% or 90%, and spend the remaining time reflecting, your output is higher than if you worked the whole time. Yet you will hear the refrain “we don’t have time for reflection”. Really, you don’t have time to work better?  Leading companies like Google make time for reflection part of the working conditions, truly committing to the value of reflection.

Finally, it has to be perceived to be ‘safe’ to contribute. As mentioned above, if there’s no tolerance for mistakes, people won’t share them, and then the same mistakes get repeated. I loved the story a small organization told about how they ring a bell – not when the mistake is made, but when the lesson is learned.

These elements come together as ‘working out loud’ or ‘show your work’ (c.f. Bozarth, 2014), where people are transparent about what they’re doing.  By documenting the work (and the thinking behind the work, ‘narrating the work’), you are reflecting.  By sharing you can expose and explore new ideas. It’s safe to try new things, and learn from them; in fact, it’s expected!  The benefits are that individuals can align with each others’ work, and can offer improvements.


To get there takes the usual organizational change you would expect: selling the benefit and making it an obvious choice, leadership that not just supports but models the behavior, being explicit in evangelizing what’s desired, rewarding the successes, and providing support for the challenges.

In general, large scale organizational change is challenging and has a high likelihood of failure.  What’s emerging is a recognition that two things increase the success. One is a working approach that increasingly focuses on teams to accomplish goals. These teams should be big enough to be diverse and yet small enough to work together without too much overhead, somewhere between 5 and 9 people (except where a greater suite of skills is needed).  The second element is to make the culture change start small with the team, and gradually scale up. This makes it easier in small organizations.

Teams should be composed of members of various communities of practice, and the team practices should migrate out to those communities.  The notion of ‘scaling’ up has proven to be a viable method to creating successful change, as Sutton and Rao (2014) discuss.

A potential solution is to start within your own business unit. Start creating a culture of learning and using innovative practices.  These practices include identifying and developing the skills for working together effectively, experimenting with ideas, and documenting the outcomes, under a commitment to continual improvement.  With practice, the behaviors that are part of the new culture become developed and can then be scaled.

As a side note, the elements that make a more effective and innovative culture also are ones that make for a more engaging workplace, increasing employee retention and loyalty.  Adding in meaningful work and employee empowerment only contributes to those benefits. The ultimate outcome is an organization that not just survives, but thrives.

Organizations of all sizes can benefit from ongoing improvement, and the investment in the shift is an investment in the organizational future. For the learning unit in an organization, moving from an individual formal learning focus to a broader focus on organizational learning requires effort, but the outcome is in becoming more central to organizational success. That, I will suggest, is an opportunity with significant upside.  The remaining question is whether L&D can be innovative enough internally to be the driver of innovation in the organization.  And that’s a question you have to answer.
Bozarth, J. (2014). Show Your Work: The Payoffs and How-To’s of Working Out Loud. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Garvin, D. A., Edmondson, A. C, & Gino, F. (2008). Is Yours a Learning Organization?  Harvard Business Review. March, 2008.
Sutton, R.I., & Rao, H. (2014). Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less. New York: Crown Business.