You Don’t Want an Innovative Culture!

Hi Fellow UXers,

While researching for the upcoming ImprovUX book I am co-writing with Jim Karwisch, I continue to find references that fall along the lines of “innovative culture” or “a culture of innovation”. I believe that you do not want an “innovative culture”, what you really want is a company culture that is collaborative, supportive, and focused on solving user problems.


When a product or service is labeled as “innovative” it earns that adjective from the users of the product or service and from others that work in your field. The creators of the product or service do not get to label it as “innovative”. Companies that work to create or improve an existing product or service may later be called innovative but this result comes from aiming to improve the user’s experience. If, using Scott Berkun’s definition of innovation, a product or service is innovative if it provides a

“significant positive change”

which would then be embraced by its users and noticed by its peers.

With that user embracement the product or service now stands a good chance of being called or considered “innovative”. If the product or service doesn’t provide a significant positive change it won’t be embraced and even worse, you might get a label from the users that you don’t want.

The focus of User Experience is on finding out what the user wants and needs and how those things aren’t being fulfilled. Once you’ve done the research to discover potential problems your team has to come up with solutions to solve those problems. How would we describe the culture within a UX team or company that creates solutions that solve those problems (and hopefully have the added bonus of being called innovative)? Let’s break it down.


So how do you build a collaborative, supportive, and creative culture that produces innovative products or services? I believe that we best solve problems collaboratively (#NoUnicorns), where those involved are as ego-free as possible and listen and support each other’s ideas in a non-judgmental environment. Ideas are looked on as opportunities to explore and create solutions. That doesn’t mean all of the ideas end up being used, one idea is eventually deemed the appropriate solution to the problem being worked on.

The possibility of judgment from our peers is a leading cause of fear when approaching potential failure. A non-judgmental environment is key to removing both the fear of judgement and of taking a risk itself. Let’s say you’re really interested in someone and you want to ask them out on a date. Are you really afraid of the other person saying “no” or is it the perceived judgment of you by the other person that the “no” carries with it?

You need something to help train your employees to operate in a collaborative fashion that grows that listening, supportive, non-judgmental environment. Training that they’ll want to get involved with, that will make the learning fun and interesting so it sticks. Something like…


Improv is all about collaboration, support, acceptance and non-judgment. Whether it’s two improvisers doing a single scene or a group of improvisers doing a show the skills we previously mentioned are the core of how the improvisers are operate. In order to create the collaborative group mind, Improv uses exercises that stress the following ideas/concepts/traits:

The Improv Core:

  • Listening
  • Acceptance
  • Non Judgment
  • Empathy
  • Trust
  • Connection

In Improv it is vital to have these skills because there are no meetings to determine what’s going to happen on stage during a show. No scenes are planned out ahead of time; all you have is what is going on right then and there. There’s no time to continuously reject ideas. You’ll never get anywhere in a scene or show if everyone is saying “NO” to every idea.

Using the Improv Core helps get the action moving forward. Improvisers take every idea and build on it with new information and ideas that move a scene and a show towards an unknown destination. While moving towards the unknown can cause fear, improvisers are trained to support each other in a way that keeps them working together despite any fear or uncertainty they might be feeling. They’ve got each other’s back and they know it.

In the working world, when you have all of the skills above instilled in your company’s culture, you then have employees that are:

  • More creative and willing to embrace the own new ideas even if they seem risky
  • More willing to accept the ideas of others and use them to find the most appropriate solution
  • More agile and better at dealing with change as they are now trained to respond to new ideas and situations by exploring them and trying to make them better
  • More willing participate in the design process because they know others will be supporting them 100%
  • A better understanding that the solution they’re creating is for the user not them (just how in improv the scene is the most important thing, NOT the improvisers ego or need to be in the spotlight)

The Improv Core helps to get groups of people from different backgrounds on the same page and working together. Improv stresses that everyone can contribute and that  every idea can be used. By being open and non-judgmental to ideas we may find “crazy” we can work towards solutions we never thought were possible (or never even thought of in the first place.)

Take Aways

You can bring improv training into your workplace to help teach employees these concepts. It is important though that you work to incorporate them into your daily workflow.

  • Use mindfulness warm-ups before meetings
  • Use “yes and” type exercises before ideation and design sessions
  • Use support exercises to help employees get used to making each other look like rock stars

Eventually these habits become the default way of operating and that’s when things can really start to get interesting.

Yes, and!


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