Three Steps For Cultural Change

by | Jul 30, 2021

“If everything is innovative, then surely nothing is” – Domhnaill Hernon.

The boundaries of disciplines, careers, and practices are not set in stone. There is no reason why an artist can’t be solving business problems or why a business person shouldn’t enrich their company with artistic practices. The world is far more complex than a systematic right-left brain divide. Companies should hire and train the best people, whoever might help reach the next milestone [1]; this benefits cognitive diversity and innovative culture within an organization. 

One of our podcast guests, Domhnaill Hernon, until recently, VP of innovation and Head of Experiments on Art and Technology (EAT) in Nokia Bell Labs, shares his thoughts and experiences with innovation culture. 

Nokia Bell Labs has been one of the most innovative and disruptive organizations in the last 90 years. The tech world has benefitted from its groundbreaking discoveries, such as satellites, microscopes, or coupled devices that shape society to the current day.

Since the beginning of the 20th century Bell Labs, although science-based, has always collaborated with artists. In their current project of the artist in residence, they sought to bring out emotion and explore the social elements of human-machine interactions.

We then asked Hernon how a manager or leader might build an innovative culture?

He shared with us that cultural change is necessary to instill innovation initiatives; however, there are some key ingredients in achieving such change. 


Source: E.A.T – Billy Klüver, Co-founder of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.)

Understand Innovation 

Innovation is a word that carries significant meaning; however, there is also the risk of prescribing the buzzword definition for your company. “Before anything, define what innovation is and what it is not,” answered Hernon upon the seemingly trivial question. 

Innovation can take many shapes and forms, but the most important thing is to extract its essence, not the practice. Thus, innovation requires a holistic vision and a rigorous assessment of what its purpose will be. 

Understanding innovation is acknowledging that it takes time to develop. There isn’t such a thing as an on/off switch. Moreover, leaders and managers ought to have clarity of the direction of innovation efforts. Under the pressure of “innovating,” many companies succumb to simple adjustments and senseless creative and divergent thinking manifestations. 

Companies should strive for divergent thinking and creativity; however, these should be aligned with the firm’s performance and be routed towards the company’s goals. For instance, Nokia Bell Labs implemented artists in residence (cultural change) to bring emotion to human-machine interaction (innovative solution). Although innovation is not guaranteed, a company that embraces the essence of innovation will at least explore paths and solutions that would have otherwise been unvisited.

Understand That Cultural Change Leads to Innovation 

There is causality between cultural change and innovation. Hernon suggests that there can’t be innovation without a cultural change. One naturally succeeds the other. Moreover, 80% of innovation initiatives fail, and 80% of cultural initiatives fail; there is a certain proportionality between these two. [2]

Innovation and cultural change are often viewed with a short-sighted lens. For this reason, dissecting and appreciating every aspect of cultural change is essential for its success. 

Understanding the culture itself is a crucial starting point. Organizational culture dictates the purpose of employees and aligns the efforts of the workforce. With everyone swimming in the same direction, things run much more smoothly, and there is less room for friction and altercations. This is if the culture is clearly embedded within the working culture. 

Identifying your driving force is essential to know where to aim next. Designing the change you want to see in your organization and elaborating a plan for implementation and execution naturally follows after such introspection. Asking the right questions is generally the baseline for change. 

Advanced technology and good products and services are no longer a novelty, and it is almost expected of companies. In today’s corporate landscape, leading companies stand out for divergent solutions and rich company culture.


Source: Bell Labs

Evaluate Current Culture and Envision Change

Igniting cultural change is as systematic as any other business practice, even more perhaps. Companies should formulate a phased and gradual approach to reach the desired point of change, and this plan should be time-specific. A leader seeking cultural change will gauge the current standing point, and in contrast to the envisioned outcome, build the steps forward to achieve change; as a result, cultivating more innovative practices. 

Given his background in Aeronautical engineering, Domnhaill Hernon, defines the area of growth and change as delta  (Δ) – the difference between point A and point B. Point A is the current culture and point B being the desired culture. Therefore, for an innovative organization to be created, there has to be a plan for cultural change strategically put in place. 

It is worth pointing out that cultural change is not a branding ploy; it is not a check-the-box exercise that will simply make you look cool. 

“Innovation is not business as usual, innovation is not just R&D, or having a corporate venture capital arm to your business, innovation is all of these things and more,” says Hernon. 

After defining innovation itself, focusing on culture, and envisioning your desired change, you need to make those changes last. For this, stay tuned for our next article, or listen to Domhnaill Hernon on our podcast.



Interested in bringing this perspective into your own company? Check out The Artian’s training!


Listen to other insightful interviews and perspectives on The Artian podcast!



-Tomás Hoyos


[1] C. West & N. Neelakanti. Unicorn Startups Seek Cognitive Diversity Early in Hiring. (09/03/2020) Kauffman Fellows. 

[2] Season 2, Episode 1 Shaping Business Minds Through Art. Domnhaill Hernon. Humanizing Tech: Experiment in Art and Technology (20:22)

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