On organisational culture

Recently, my management team and I have started a debate about what culture the CPGR has and what aspects of it we’d like to maintain or change in the interest of the organisation’s long-term success.

Often, when we hear or talk about culture, we refer to values shared by individuals and the organisation as a whole. This is not surprising since much of the energy that keeps people going, and therefore organisations, is derived from core values such as trust, integrity, success or equality.

It is likely that every organisation will face a competition of values as it evolves over time. In particular, this is true for entrepreneurial ventures and has been described, among others, by Ichak Adizes in his model of the corporate life cycle. You’ll find the CPGR somewhere in the ‘adolescence’ sphere on Adizes’ life cycle.

To me, culture is not an abstract basket of values or other concepts; it is a set of practices that permeates the organization.

Therefore, when having a conversation about culture, I find that it is more relevant to consider ‘what is common practice’ in the organisation rather than having a debate about the abstract terms. It’s similar to talking about fitness where in the end we all agree that it’s important that we lead healthy life styles and maintain a proper work-life balance. We’ll all feel much better in the end and go back to our daily routines anyway. No harm done, no mind-sets challenged in the process!

Alternatively, we could query in detail how often we go to the gym, cycle or hike and how much time we spend with family or friends as opposed to spending time in the office. Surely, the latter will be more effective in stimulating change than the former. There is also a good chance that the latter will be more challenging and possibly be met with greater resilience. But, challenges or resilience are just forms of creative energy and can therefore be utilised in facilitating change or for maintaining the status quo, whichever is appropriate.

About challenge-driven innovation

Innovation is a value that is important to me and essential for the success of the CPGR. My simple definition of innovation is as follows: Innovation is the ability to respond to dynamic changes in the environment (opportunities or threats) in an effective manner (creativity is part of it but what matters more is to transform it into a tangible form of social or commercial value for stakeholders of the organisation).

Open innovation is a paradigm which assumes that organizations can and should use external as well as internal ideas and paths to finding solutions to advance their technologies. It is being embraced increasingly by industries who were in the past quite reluctant to do so but were forced to consider alternative ways of new product development in the face of declining R&D outputs and loss of shareholder value. Notably the pharmaceutical industry has come to the fore with exciting initiatives in this regard in order to prime the draining ‘new medicines’ pipelines. Challenge driven innovation, a particular form of open innovation, is spearheaded by a company called InnoCentive. Their approach has been described in great detail in a recent book called The Open Innovation Marketplace: Creating Value in the Challenge Driven Enterprise, written by InnoCentive CEO Dwayne Spradlin and Founder Alph Bingham.

I am intrigued by the concept and wanted to test it in practice. I considered a test potentially useful in eliciting new creative potential residing in my organisation when it comes to solving problems. However, I also looked at it as an exercise in managerial practice and, for that reason, based it on the principles of evidence based management (EBM). EBM promotes the application of principles developed in evidence-based medicine as a means to enhance the quality of decision-making in the managerial profession. I considered this relevant since the exercise was meant to facilitate decision making in an area particularly relevant to the CPGR at this point in time.

My assumptions about the prospective outcomes from the exercise were as follows:

  • The exercise would encourage a fresh, entrepreneurial, out-of-the box approach to problem solving, not least by limiting the time available to complete the project task. The idea behind this was to focus the team on the really important issues.
  • It would elicit tacit knowledge in the hope that novel insights can be created as a consequence.
  • It would facilitate strategy-relevant decisions in an evidence-based but quick fashion, including a proper documentation of the process.
  • It would help the organisation explore what kinds of benefits we can derive from introducing aspects of a challenge-driven innovation into the CPGR in general.
  • It would challenge existing organisational structures and actual or perceived positions of rank or power. This would potentially lead to the build-up of tensions and therefore creative energy.

The challenge

As part of its daily business, the CPGR generates vast amounts of data. These data need to be processed, stored or transferred from one place to another. Underlying this are IT-intensive processes that form the basis of a Bioinformatics core competency in Genomics and Proteomics at the CPGR as well as similar organizations. Considering our current growth trajectory and in the interest of creating exceptional value for our customers, we need to have access to relevant resources and core capabilities. Importantly, we need to develop a strategy that is capable of achieving our future value creation objectives.

In the interest of preparing the relevant decisions and in testing the challenge-driven approach, I posed the following question to the CPGR Bioinformatics team: ‘What benefit can we derive from working with an outsourced provider of high-performance computing and data storage, now, and in the future, in terms of creating value for CPGR users, both academic and commercial?’

In order to answer this question I asked for a breakdown of options and a recommendation on what we should be doing. I wanted the team to work on it jointly and, ultimately, present the outcome of the exercise in the form of a recommendation document as well as in an oral presentation.

I provided some guidance on how to tackle the challenge. Instead of just pressing ahead and formulating a response on the basis of what the team (thought they) already knew, I wanted it to embark on a more comprehensive exercise, as follows:

  1. I asked the team members to find 6 selected papers published in peer reviewed journals with relevance to the question. I wanted each paper to be read by 2 people in order to create some redundancy. For each paper, I wanted them to stipulate what the key ideas or findings were. Eventually, the team should come up with a consolidated ‘recommendation’ that deals with the question;
  2. I asked them to pick 6 other source of information available in the public domain (e.g. blogs) and carry out a similar exercise;
  3. I asked them to interact with 6 peers, locally or internationally, to gather information with relevance to the above question;
  4. All of the above should be condensed into 1 consolidated recommendation;
  5. The outcomes of each step should be documented meticulously in order to create a ‘decision-making trail of evidence’;
  6. A recommendation document should be prepared, no longer than 2 MS Word pages, using size 11 font (not smaller);
  7. The recommendation should be presented to a broader forum, using PowerPoint or any other suitable medium. The presentation should not be longer than 5 minutes with open discussion thereafter. The presentation could be done as a group or one person could do it.

The challenge was communicated in writing (e-mail). We had a challenge kick-off meeting to address and resolve any questions and set a delivery time frame of 2 weeks.

The results

By and large, testing the idea of a challenge-based project, grounded in evidence-based managerial (EBM) practice, has proven successful in terms of the outputs that were generated. However, a true assessment of the effectiveness of this approach as a managerial intervention in innovation can only be established over an extended period of time.

Things that have worked well:

  • 1 team member (‘team member A’) took the lead very quickly, not least because the others were very busy with other projects or tasks. This warrants the question, what would have happened if all of them were very busy? Did team member A opt to prioritise the challenge over other existing tasks or projects? If so, why? Is he more challenge-driven than the others? And how has he rationalized these decisions?
  • The team (in essence team member A), decided quickly to search for alternative sources of information when realising that there was only little information in peer-reviewed journals. This shows the ability to make adequate context-relevant decisions.
  • The energy built up in the 2 weeks of the challenge did not dissipate after the presentation, i.e. at the end of the 2 week period. Rather, the presentation itself has multiplied the energy, infecting other CPGR staff members as well. What concerns me is how spin-off activity (currently, possibly more than 1 project) can be managed effectively. Nonetheless, the challenge output (a conceptual recommendation) is precipitating quickly into tangible results because of 2 key developments: (i) a critical mass of activity has been built up with focus on the challenge related problem; (ii) the challenge topic has been adopted by other team members, stimulating further creativity and action.
  • The challenge was meant to eradicate any assumptions of rank or hierarchy and have people work at the same level, and jointly, in trying to solve the challenge. What has happened was that team member A emerged as leader, although this could also have been due to the fact that the other team members were too busy. Future exercises will hopefully reveal how effectively a challenge-driven intervention can be used to break down barriers of rank or power to unleash creativity across the organisation(s).

Things that could have been done better:

  • The challenge team was only comprised of bioinformaticians. It will be useful in future exercises to build a multi-disciplinary team. In fact, it’ll be useful to include external experts in a challenge (which was effectively the case in this challenge when an ‘advisor’ from Europe was brought into the equation).
  • The fact that one team member emerged as the lead ‘worker’ added to ‘getting the job done’ but it decreased diversity in gathering information and formulating an effective solution.
  • The team did not manage to address the original question with 100% accuracy. In other words, the team members digressed from the core question when gathering information relevant to solving the challenge. There was certainly a risk that the outcome could have been ineffective. Nonetheless, a useful solution has transpired from the process. I think it will be important to instruct teams in the future to take note of ‘innovation avenues’ that emerge when digressing from the original question but have the potential of new value creation nonetheless. Overall, the team has shown considerable ability in making go/no-go decisions during the exercise, which is one of the core capabilities of a challenge-driven team. This is where a certain level of detail in documenting the process will be useful for assessing the origin and quality of these bifurcations in moving towards a solution.
  • It may be useful – probably after building more confidence and a track record in using this approach – to put up challenges without specifying the task teams up-front and rather let these teams emerge. The question here is what kind of incentives (carrots) we could provide to make this process effective? One idea is to have a bill board of successful challenges and let it develop into a self-assessed (with rating) activity by our staff members but I am sure many more will emerge over the next couple of weeks.
  • I realise that, in order for the teams to work really effectively, we will have to introduce practical tools for reducing complexity when under pressure, such as collecting propositions from a diversity of papers; categorisation into concepts; inter-relationship diagraphs; causal-loop diagrams; fish-bone diagrams; or force-field analyses.


Overall, the exercise has paid off. It has produced outputs that are immediately useful and, what’s more, it has enhanced our understanding of how to stimulate innovation in novel ways. As a consequence, we have increased our knowledge base and started building a new strategic capability. We will use the lessons learned from this exercise for designing other challenge-driven interventions, to enhance problem-solving and to stimulate innovation.

What concerns me as MD of this organisation is how to maintain an effective balance of stability and innovation in the interest of keeping the CPGR as agile as possible in the face of dynamic changes in the environment.

I believe that challenge-driven interventions are an adequate tool to enhance decision making and problem solving. When grounded in evidence based managerial practice, the related outcomes can be converted into tangible knowledge at all levels of the organisation, thereby adding to the stability of the organization while enhancing our ability to innovate towards future value creation.