TRA Journal

A cultural compass to steer by

Colleen Ryan

“Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.” – Theodore Levitt

Most people would say that creativity is more difficult than innovation – thinking up new ideas seems hard and the domain of gifted creative types. But with the right framework and inspiration, most people are indeed very creative. 

But for all the good ideas there are many more failures when it comes to execution. Why? Because we don’t have a clear compass to guide our implementation. 

Creative ideas often falter at the execution hurdle. We take them in the wrong direction, or worse we dilute their original creativity. And that is because the original creativity phase didn’t have a framework that would carry through to the doing.

What framework should we use? Well, human needs and truths are a good starting point.  But Steve Job’s infamous mantra: "Research has no role in innovation, because people don’t know what they want until you give it to them" stymies the idea that people can tell us what their needs are and that all we must do is make something that meets that need.

Another common structure is a product pipeline management (PPM) system. But as with all systemised processes, it can become the governor, not the facilitator. There is a danger of the system narrowing the ideation funnel too quickly to get through the assessment gates, resulting in a process of product tweaks and minor developments instead of transformational ideas.

So what about the ideas that lead to true innovation? Where under the aegis of the PPM did Nespresso, Uber and Airbnb emerge? Innovations such as these are transformational because they surf the zeitgeist of cultural change to future proof the innovation pipeline.

A lens to see our future through

A framework that creates a cultural compass not only acts as inspiration for creativity, it goes on to guide the innovation process. But why a culturally based framework rather than something else? 

Firstly, because people are strongly influenced by cultural context in everything they do. Culture helps us steer through life’s complexities, giving us a playbook to direct our decisions. 

Secondly, people use cultural currents to reframe their view of the world and what is possible. We are not good at picturing ourselves in the future but we can imagine how other people’s lives might be different.

If we use emerging culture as the context for new product development, we not only get a more productive and open minded idea generation process, but we also know that any ideas that emerge will be aligned with developing trends. By the time the idea gets to market we will be introducing it into an environment that is ready to receive it.

And lastly, people like to do what others do. The thrill and risk of the new is tempered by the comfort of others doing the same thing, so adopting new ideas becomes not nearly as scary. 

Cultural currents drive innovation

Our culture changes constantly. Indeed, most of the world’s great innovations emerged in response to significant cultural changes. It is no coincidence, for example, that trouser suits emerged for women at a time when a growing number of females were entering higher education and business. 


We can be a bit more objective than trouser suits. The volume of global patent applications, for example, is closely correlated to significant cultural change dimensions. These dimensions include society’s underlying uncertainty vs. security, changing views of masculinity vs. femininity, the move to individualism vs. collectivism (as experienced during the Thatcher period which saw an unprecedented rise in badge brand products and luxury goods), and distance vs. proximity to sources of power (China is currently experiencing a huge spike in patent applications as private business has moved much closer to the source of political power). 

Although these variables help explain the overall level of innovation in a society at a particular time, cultural trends also help drive specific market innovation.

A cultural compass steers the process

To create a relevant context, you need to create a cultural compass for your category – identifying the cultural currents that your idea can hitch a ride on and how they are shaped by local influences. That framework needs to persist beyond idea generation and right through to execution where we can pick up on the codes and iconography of the currents we are riding. 

These currents often operate at a global level but must be nuanced to varying degrees at a local level. For example, Unilever is currently restructuring to shift more resources to local markets because they have recognised the importance of aligning with customers’ local cultural context, identity and lifestyle. 

Global brands won’t disappear, and for them the cost benefits of developing new products for a global market massively outweigh the advantage of locally based innovation. But most brands and products aren’t global and do have the advantage of being developed in a specific cultural context.

Look at Whittaker’s or Speights’ local advantage. These iconic brands tap into the Kiwi psyche, but this doesn’t mean they are immune to larger global cultural currents. Whittaker’s innovations reflect growing trends in experiential foodie-ism, and Speights’ mid-strength beer is leveraging a local spin on wellbeing and moderation as a result of the reduced blood alcohol level for driving.

Better to use culture than be used by it

Although we have choices about what framework we use for innovation, it’s a fact of life that cultural currents continue to flow and provide the overarching landscape into which new products are launched. Cultural shifts will influence how people behave and what decisions they make whether it suits our plans or not. So it’s much better to use those currents for our own ends to inspire and guide innovation.