Culture Eats Innovation (and AI) for Breakfast

June 30, 2023
Posted in AI
June 30, 2023 Jamie Notter


If you’re going to delve into AI (and I think you should), you’d best start your culture change efforts at the same time. Why? Because AI gives you the opportunity to do deep innovation that can unlock tremendous new value, but if your culture is like most, it doesn’t value the behaviors needed to make innovation successful (like experimentation or risk taking). So get the culture change moving at the same time you start down the AI path to ensure you get the best return on this important investment.


Let’s talk a little about AI, but not the “AI will save/destroy the world” conversation; I’m staying out of that debate for now.

But there is something I will choose sides on: AI is really powerful. There is no doubt in my mind that AI is going to transform a lot of things—long before we know whether we will be saved or destroyed by it. For that reason, I’m not waiting to jump in.

And neither is the Blue Cypress family of companies (of which PROPEL is one). Yesterday the whole family had a meeting to talk about Chairman Amith Nagarajan’s new book, Ascend. The book is about how the association community can/should leverage AI to expand their impact (you can download it here for free btw).

During the conversation, two important points about how to use AI in organizations came out:

  1. AI will help you do what you CURRENTLY do better, faster, cheaper. It used to take days to write a summary of that 200-page report for the Board, and now it takes a few hours, with AI doing the first pass. Multiply that impact in other areas of your operations, and you’ll be saving a lot of time and money. Those savings will then give you resources and bandwidth for part 2.
  2. AI can help you do NEW things that were previously unimaginable. This is where the real gains will be made. AI has the potential to drive true innovation, something associations talk about a lot, but don’t do a whole lot.
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Innovation is change that unlocks new value.

I can’t remember the first time I shared that definition of innovation, but since then, I’ve seen it popping up in all corners of the internet. It seems to resonate. The key word is “unlock.” Innovation isn’t just change. It’s change that gives you access to value that you could never reach using the established rules of the game.

Implementing AI in part 1 above does not generally qualify as innovation. It’s more like improvement. It’s what you already do, you’re just doing it better. But it does then give you the time to devote to real innovation work. Like maybe you could innovate your business model and start offering value in completely new ways. You could create a for-profit subsidiary. You could get completely out of the membership business. Or you could dive into the membership business. The sky’s the limit. You just have to be tapping into value you couldn’t reach before.

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But here’s the catch. It won’t work unless you have a culture of innovation, and most organizations don’t.

Most cultures pay lip service to innovation. This is the very first culture pattern we identified in our research (and will be featured in a chapter in our upcoming book, Culture Change Made Easy). Most cultures value the concepts of innovation (future focus, creativity, inspiration), but the practices of innovation (experimentation, beta testing, risk taking) are not as present. Innovation can happen in cultures that have this pattern, but it’s relatively rare and the impact is small. People innovate processes within workstreams, perhaps, but they rarely innovate a business model or core processes, because that involves taking risks, failing sometimes, and running true experiments where you don’t know what the outcome will be ahead of time. Most cultures today don’t value those behaviors. That’s how culture eats innovation for breakfast.

So if you’re going to jump into AI (and I think you should), you’d best start your culture change efforts at the same time.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is a co-founder and culture strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders create amazing workplace cultures that drive greater performance and impact. He brings thirty years of experience to his work designing and managing culture, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is the co-author of four popular business books, including the award-winning Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement, and his fall 2023 release, Culture Change Made Easy. He holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.