Interview with Prof. Robert A. Sedlák on Innovation Culture

“Oftentimes, organizations are surprised when they suddenly realize what potential has long existed in the organization”

The ongoing culture survey is conducted in cooperation with the consulting firm SEDLÁK & PARTNER. In the interview, Robert A. Sedlák, founder and CEO of SEDLÁK & PARTNER and guest professor at ECNU Shanghai, outlines from a consultant’s perspective, inter alia, why corporate culture plays such an essential role, why a cultural change cannot simply be achieved by resolution, and what characterizes a culture of innovation.

What is your understanding of corporate culture? Why is it so important?

Corporate culture includes values, expectations, behavioral patterns, and rules according to which actions are taken. It exerts a decisive influence on the overall coordination of behavior in an organization. It affects decisions, work processes, employee motivation and cohesion within the workforce, as well as its performance. When it comes to the success of strategic initiatives or innovations, corporate culture can be the decisive factor.

Why is culture so hard to grasp?

Culture develops autonomously and unobserved – over years or even decades. Although, guidelines or defined corporate values exist, we often observe a difference between what is written down and what is done on a day-to-day basis. It is what happens and is experienced that shapes the culture rather than what is put down on paper.

You can also think of corporate culture as unwritten rules of the game that trigger strong reactions and resistance when they are violated. The more emotional the reaction, the more it concerns a cultural issue.

Culture is always present, like the weather. Organizational actions are significantly influenced by it without organizational members giving it much thought.

When is it necessary to change the culture?

First of all, we would never describe a culture as good or bad. As a rule, there is a good reason for a culture to be the way it is. We, therefore, always look at the culture in the context of the current strategy and the associated objectives. Together with management and employees, we then examine the extent to which the present culture still fits in with these objectives – or not. Consequently, culture either promotes or inhibits certain developments.

Whenever the current rules of the game practiced in an organization no longer fit the strategy and corporate goals, a culture change makes sense. It is possible that something that has worked well for decades and led to success suddenly no longer fits and can even be a hindrance.

The occasions for a culture change can be very diverse: For example, a company may notice that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find suitable employees. Or it may want to become more innovative, but the current culture is strongly oriented toward security. In such cases, the question arises: What rules of the game and what forms of collaboration are needed to foster innovation – or to attract the people the company needs now and in the years to come?

Robert A. Sedlák

Robert A. Sedlák is founder and CEO of SEDLÁK & PARTNER, guest professor at ECNU Shanghai and a certified business mediator.

After more than 30 years of experience in the fields of strategy, organizational, and human resource development, Robert Sedlák has become one of the most renowned systemic organizational consultants in Germany. He is considered an expert in organizational transformation in a strategic context. Together with ECNU, the East China Normal University in Shanghai, he founded the “ECNU-S&P Research Center for ICT-enabled systemic change and innovation”.

“What rules of the game and what forms of collaboration are needed to foster innovation – or to attract the people the company needs now and in the years to come? ”

What characterizes a culture that promotes innovation?

Above all, a culture that promotes innovation provides the space for creative work. Innovation requires the willingness to say goodbye to the status quo, to actively seek out pattern changes and to push them forward. Communication behavior that allows different views, contradiction, and even controversial discourse is just as essential as the acceptance of the most diverse personality typologies.

In addition, a positive culture of error is needed: mistakes or unusual deviations from the status quo are understood as welcomed learning impulses to create something new. There needs to be room for unproductive trial and error. Imperfection must also be accepted: In a culture focused solely on perfection, no one will dare to present an unfinished prototype to solicit feedback. This nips innovation in the bud.

Interdisciplinary collaboration, a constant supply of impulses from the “environment,” the promotion of personal responsibility, value-oriented, meaningful leadership, diversely structured teams, and cooperation play just as important a role as adequate communication and social spaces that promote networking and open exchange. Of course, this list is not exhaustive.

We often experience how surprised organizations are when, thanks to the right framework, they suddenly discover what knowledge, ideas, and potential have long been present in the organization.

How does culture change happen?

Corporate culture is deeply rooted in the organization and thus cannot simply be changed by order or at the push of a button. A poster campaign, for example, is therefore not suitable for achieving culture change. It is not enough just to change the narrative.

Management cannot simply press a button or decide that everyone will be more innovative or customer-oriented tomorrow. In many cases, it takes structural adjustments, new rules of the game, and a different attitude to bring about a lasting change in the organizational culture. Leadership and key players have a crucial role here.

A first step in culture development is to capture today’s culture in linguistic terms and to be able to describe the identified target/actual differences for companies, divisions, and organizational units – both nationally and internationally. This requires an understandable language. Based on this difference, a change process is then necessary, entirely in the context of the strategic orientation and the associated corporate goals. In this process, the essential measures for change are identified step by step and a plan for how to implement these measures is developed.

“A company is simply not a trivial system like a coffee machine into which I put coffee beans and water and know exactly what will come out.“

So, once these steps have been completed, do we have a culture of innovation?

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Because no matter how well the change project is designed, it is simply not possible to predict how people or today’s culture will react to it.

One of the reasons for this is that organizations are complex social systems. A company is not a trivial system like a coffee machine into which I put coffee beans and water and know exactly what will come out. The complexity prevailing in organizations makes it very difficult to predict what will happen when changes are initiated. The outcome is always open. For this reason, it is important to keep a close eye on developments and to keep adjusting measures, if necessary.

How are you looking at WIKA and the ongoing culture survey?

WIKA is a company that has grown over decades and operates very successfully on a global scale. It is impressive to read this success story. It can be said with certainty even now, i.e., before the culture survey has been completed, that the ability to deal with the very different cultures in the regions is an important factor in this success story.

With its Corporate Strategy 2030, WIKA has set highly ambitious goals. Growth and innovation represent important components of this strategy. Currently, the question remains to what extent the current WIKA culture and the associated corporate values fit with the adopted strategy – or in other words, whether the culture lived today promotes or inhibits the achievement of the set goals.

With the results of the ongoing culture survey, we are creating the basis for discussing this question – considering the very different framework conditions at the individual sites – and then finding answers. The participation in the survey provides us with a useful foundation from which important conclusions can be drawn. We are now very curious to see what further insights we can gain from the individual interviews to supplement the available statistical data with practical examples and descriptions.

So far, we feel that the cooperation within the framework of the cultural survey has been very professional. In addition to a very friendly reception, in our meetings with representatives from Klingenberg, the German companies as well as the regions, we developed a working atmosphere that enabled us to generate high-quality results quickly and constructively. This cannot be taken for granted, which is why we are looking forward all the more to further cooperation with the WIKA team.

Further Information

What Distinguishes Systemic Organizational Consulting from Expert Consulting?

Systemic consulting views organizations as complex social systems. In simple terms, these are strongly focused on self-preservation and stabilization and cannot be changed from the outside. This means that all change measures must be geared towards providing impulses so that the organization develops from within. Old patterns must be questioned, new ones introduced and stabilized.

Experts see less of the “social system organization” and act primarily based on data, feeding this data as well as their industry and specialist expertise into their customer systems. This data can provide great added value in decision-making processes but is not sufficient to sustainably change important communication and decision-making routines, attitudes and behavior, and well-rehearsed work routines.

Systemic organizational consulting works in so-called consulting systems, in which external and internal consultants as well as executives and key players from the client system meet at eye level to wrestle together for the best solutions to implement and anchor them together. Here, the option space is expanded and answers to posed questions emerge in a completely new quality.

In this context, the systemic consultant focuses equally on the factual and process levels as well as on what is happening in the social system. All three levels are dealt with simultaneously. If, for example, conflicts are observed in the team when dealing with factual issues, systemic consultants put the factual issue aside and work on the social issue first. Systemic consultants are specially trained for those situations and have the necessary socialization. At the same time, they keep a close eye on the overall process, because they know that the right sequence of individual steps is an important factor for success. All this places very high demands on the consultants, since they not only have to understand the factual level, but also ensure the appropriate work architecture and keep a close eye on the complexity of the social system with its associated unpredictable dynamics and work on it as needed.