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Getting to
Equal 2019:

Creating a culture that drives innovation

The secret to innovation? Your workplace culture

Innovation equals survival. It’s well documented that in this age of widespread disruption, companies must innovate continuously, creating new markets, experiences, products, services, content or processes. So how can leaders encourage innovation? It’s more than recruiting the brightest minds. While having the best talent is clearly an asset, people need the right culture to flourish.

Accenture has found that a culture of equality—the same kind of workplace environment that helps everyone advance to higher positions—is a powerful multiplier of innovation and growth.

This means that building a culture of equality (measured by the 40 specific workplace factors Accenture research identified last year) is not just an ethical imperative, but a business priority. If organizations want to thrive, they have to “get to equal.”

The power of a workplace culture of equality to drive employees' innovation mindset—their willingness and ability to innovate—is strong. It has more impact than age or gender and leads to an increase in innovation mindset in all industries and all countries.

In fact, innovation mindset is six times higher in the most-equal cultures than in the least-equal ones.

Innovation also equals economic potential. Among the more than 18,000 employees in 27 countries surveyed, we found that people are more willing and able to innovate in faster-growing economies and in geographies with higher labor-productivity growth. And the stakes are enormous:

No matter who or where they are, if people feel a sense of belonging and are valued by their employers for their unique contributions, perspectives and circumstances, they are empowered to innovate more.


Working as equals, we flourish as innovators.

What’s a Culture of Equality?

A culture of equality is one where most of the 40 factors [see the full list in the report appendix] that influence advancement at work are present. Where more of these are present, employees are more likely to advance and thrive. We’ve grouped these factors, which were identified in last year’s Getting to Equal research, When She Rises, We All Rise, into three pillars:

A diverse leadership team that sets, shares and measures equality targets openly.

One that trusts employees, respects individuals and offers freedom to be creative and to train and work flexibly.

Policies and practices that are family-friendly, support all genders and are bias-free in attracting and retaining people.

What’s an Innovation

Innovation mindset is a new way to measure an individual’s ability and willingness to innovate. —It is enabled by six key elements which are based on extensive sources, including academic and business research and Accenture-owned diagnostic tools and thought leadership.

We surveyed the employees about their experience with these six elements in their workplaces, e.g., we asked about the extent to which “I am encouraged to look for inspiration outside my organization” (Inspiration) or “The purpose of the organization makes me proud to work here” (Purpose).

The more strongly a person agrees that these elements apply, the higher innovation mindset score.

Using an econometric model, we were then able to show how innovation mindset would change if more people worked in more-equal cultures: As culture improves, innovation mindset improves. For every 10 percent improvement in culture factors, innovation mindset increases by 10.6%. The change is underpinned by all three pillars of our workplace culture-of-equality factors, but it’s the empowerment factors that have the strongest impact.

The Six Elements of an Innovation Mindset:

Alignment around and support for the purpose of organization

Being shown a clear mandate for change—and being trusted to follow through

Having the tools, time and incentives necessary to innovate

Tapping into inspiration from beyond the organization

Working with other departments or in fluid, cross-function teams

Experimenting with new ideas quickly without fear of failure

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The Case for Culture

One example of a company committed to—and benefiting from—a culture of equality is Mastercard. Its stock soared over 35 percent last year, and the company is growing rapidly here and abroad as it ushers in a cashless society. Mastercard President and CEO Ajay Banga leads with a compelling metaphor:

I will create the feeling of my hand at your back, not in your face, and then you should run with it. When you’re on a level playing field, you can win what you’re capable of winning—and you deserve every single win that you get.”

“Diversity is built into the core of what we do,” Banga says. Indeed, the company boasts twice the number of women in leadership as other companies in the S&P 500. “We’re in an industry where technology and innovation flow around you all the time. If you surround yourself with people who look like you, walk like you, talk like you, went to the same schools as you and had the same experiences, you’ll have the very same blind spots as them. You’ll miss the same trends, curves in the road and opportunities.”

Banga cultivates a bright, diverse workforce, but he’s also looking for something he calls a high D.Q.—decency quotient.

We want a winning culture with decency at its core.”

For Banga, decency is about being there for employees and engendering trust among them. Trust, he says, breeds innovation: “If you want things to happen, everyone has got to be open and trusting.”

Banga’s leadership philosophy is validated by new Accenture research: When employees work in more-equal cultures, they’re much more likely to have an innovation mindset.

Innovation mindset is six times higher in the most-equal cultures than in the least-equal ones

But even companies that have some, but not most, of the culture-of-equality factors could gain a great deal from being more like the best: An innovation mindset is twice as high in the most-equal companies than in typical ones. It’s a powerful incentive for these organizations to take the leap from “ok” to “truly equal.”

What else do employees in most-equal cultures have in common with one another? For one thing, they see fewer barriers to innovating at work. And they’re also less afraid to fail.

Employees in the most-equal cultures see
fewer barriers to innovating

Percent of respondents who answered “Nothing stops me from innovating.”

Employees in the most-equal cultures are
less afraid to fail

Percent of respondents who answered “Agree” and “Strongly agree.”

Most Equal
Least Equal

Culture’s power to unleash innovation is blind to industry, country and various workforce demographics. Among those surveyed, people across all genders, sexual identities, ages and ethnicities show a stronger innovation mindset in more-equal workplace cultures.

Against every factor we tested, culture wins.

Post it diversity

Diversity is a Critical Building Block,
But Equality is a Multiplier

Organizations know that fostering diversity—the extent to which members of a company’s workforce, including the leadership team, differ from each other in terms of age, ability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity or expression, religion or sexual orientation—is important.

Diversity remains a critical building block to unleashing innovation. However, a culture of equality is an essential multiplier to help maximize innovation. While the impact of diversity factors alone on innovation mindset is significant, it is much higher when combined with a culture of equality. In the most-equal and diverse cultures, innovation mindset is 11 times greater than in the least-equal and diverse cultures. For the purposes of this research, we defined diversity factors as follows: A diverse leadership team as well as teams throughout the organization that are diverse across gender, age and industry/organizational/cultural backgrounds.

Diversity positively influences an innovation mindset, and equality is the multiplier

The combined effect of culture-of-equality and diversity factors on innovation mindset.

While companies might be hitting their “numbers” in terms of diversity, they might not be building a true culture of equality. A culture of equality, which offers Bold Leadership, Comprehensive Action and an Empowering Environment, enables people from all backgrounds to succeed.

That’s because in a culture of equality, people are truly valued for their differences and free to be who they are. They’re not just there to check a box—they’re empowered to contribute.

A Leader-Employee Innovation

Accenture research shows the strength of the innovation-culture connection. But how are people perceiving the link between workplace environment and innovation today?

Nearly everyone wants—and needs—to innovate. Ninety-five percent of business leaders see innovation as vital to competitiveness and business viability, and 91 percent of employees want to be innovative.

But while 76 percent of leaders say they regularly empower employees to be innovative, only 42 percent of employees agree.

Business leaders say they empower employees to innovate—but employees are less likely to agree


Business leaders who say they empower
employees to innovate


Employees who feel empowered to innovate

Why such a disconnect? It seems that leaders mistakenly believe that some encourage innovation more than they actually do. For instance, they overestimate financial rewards (which are nevertheless still important) and underestimate purpose as a motivator to innovate.

In fact, the impact of improving culture on innovation mindset is 42 times greater than the impact of increasing salary.

When it comes to driving innovation, increasing pay is considerably less effective than bolstering a more-equal culture

Percent increase in innovation mindset of a 10% increase in pay vs. a 10% increase in workplace culture factors.

Having employees with an advanced degree or who have studied a STEM subject at college has a less-powerful impact on workers’ willingness and ability to innovate than culture factors do.

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An Empowering Environment Is the Key Culture-of-Equality Component

What is it about a culture of equality that matters most to innovation?

Again, a culture of equality is anchored by three pillars: An Empowering Environment (one that trusts employees, respects individuals and offers freedom to be creative and to train and work flexibly), Bold Leadership (a diverse leadership team that sets, shares and measures equality targets openly), and Comprehensive Action (policies and practices that are family-friendly, support all genders and are biasfree in attracting and retaining people).

It turns out that of those three, an Empowering Environment is by far the most important when it comes to enabling innovation. In fact, eight of the 10 strongest factors underpinning innovation are about empowerment.

The impact of the top 10 workplace culture factors on an innovation mindset

8 of the 10 strongest drivers are about empowerment

Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga’s hand at the back is empowering. But he stresses that it’s a company-wide effort and shared sense of purpose that have helped Mastercard thrive as a more-equal culture and as a corporation.

Mastercard is innovating in the area of financial inclusion, helping to provide access and tools to 2 billion people in the world without a bank account. “We’ve reached 380 million people as of now. I think we have a line of sight to 500 million,” Banga says. “The idea is to make it happen everywhere, from Africa to Brazil to Eastern Europe.”

It’s a business priority that is perfectly aligned with, and driven by, Mastercard’s culture of equality.

If you wander around the corridors and ask people what excites them about this company, you will hear them say our social messaging, our financial inclusion, decency quotient—you’ll get all these answers in some form or other.”

When the right tone is set from the top and everyone in an organization is empowered, trusted and armed with a mission, together they can unlock unprecedented opportunity.

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A Roadmap to Unleashing Innovation

Ready to build a culture of equality where people can thrive and create? Companies should have an inclusion and diversity (I&D) strategy in place, one that is aligned with the overall business plan. An I&D strategy will form a critical foundation on which leaders can take action and drive progress.

Here we’ve identified complementary drivers of a culture of equality and of an innovation mindset to help you focus your efforts. The three broad recommendations reinforce each other in a virtuous circle, meaning that their impact as a whole is greater than the sum of their parts. Leaders should keep in mind that some actions have a particularly strong effect on an innovation mindset.

Empowering Environment
+ Purpose + Autonomy

Training, greater flexibility and commitment to work-life balance are the most powerful drivers of an innovation mindset. This area is where there is the greatest opportunity for impact, as it accounts for 70 percent of innovation mindset gains. Employees are empowered by a shared sense of purpose, paired with autonomy, which helps them reach their individual potential.

Get clear on purpose - image

Get clear on purpose:
Ensure that employees know the purpose of their organization and how their work aligns with it.

Fiercely promote - image

Fiercely promote flexible working:
Have the leadership team set a positive example around work-life balance. Use technology to enable people to have more say over where, when and how they work.

Establish trust - image

Train effectively:
Offer employees engaging and flexible training programs so they can acquire skills for the future.

Let people - image

Let people be themselves:
Don’t ask them to conform when it comes to appearance; encourage inclusion in every way.

Bold Leadership
+ Experimentation + Resources

Culture starts at the top. Setting and publishing diversity targets, holding the leadership team accountable and measuring progress are critical steps. Leaders must give employees the resources they need to innovate and the freedom to fail.

Prioritize diversity - image

Prioritize diversity and equality:
Establish diversity, equal pay and advancement goals.

Make leaders - image

Encourage risk-taking:
Ensure that employees know they have the freedom to experiment and help them learn from their failures.

Set up to innovate - image

Set up to innovate:
Design in the necessary time, space, resource and technologies needed to innovate and continually encourage and reward innovation.

Make leaders accountable - image

Make leaders accountable:
Track progress, make leaders accountable.

Comprehensive Action
+ Inspiration + Collaboration

Forward-looking policies and practices are important, but they must also be evenly accessible to ensure that individuals or groups don’t feel singled out or held back. When employees are inspired by those inside and outside the organization, their commitment to living the company’s core values, and for collaborating with one another, grows.

Send a loud - image

Send a loud and broad signal:
For example, encourage all new parents, not just birth mothers, to take leave.

Cross-train - image

Cross-train and rearrange teams:
Use work rotations, temporary assignments or horizontal career moves to give people opportunities to grow skills and to share knowledge across the organization.

Use networks - image

Use networks:
Encourage collaboration and support through networks for your employees.

Look outward - image

Look outward:
Bring the outside in. Encourage people to develop external networks and partnerships and to attend events where they meet others and hear new ideas.

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About the research

The Accenture research program was built on three proprietary research initiatives:


An established methodology for measuring the culture of the workplace developed for our 2018 study, When She Rises, We All Rise.


An online workforce survey of 18,200 working professionals in 27 countries. Conducted in October 2018, the survey used quotas to ensure a good representation across companies of different sizes and across genders.


A phone survey of 152 C-suite executives, conducted by phone in eight countries in November and December 2018.

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About the Authors

Ellyn Shook

Chief Leadership & Human
Resources Officer, Accenture


Ellyn is responsible for helping the company’s 469,000 people succeed both professionally and personally. Her global team of HR leaders and experts is reimagining leadership and talent practices—including innovative uses of technology to unlock people’s potential—to create the most truly human work environment in the digital age. These help fuel the organization’s differentiation in the market and ability to improve the way the world works and lives. She frequently advises clients who seek to learn from the large-scale talent transformation she’s led within Accenture.

A member of the company’s Global Management Committee and Investment Committee, Ellyn is a strong advocate for inclusion and diversity. She serves on the board of trustees at Harvey Mudd College, the Women’s Leadership Board of the Women and Public Policy program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and the steering committee of Paradigm for Parity. She is active in Women in America and Ellevate Women’s Network and is also a member of the HR50 division of World50.

A 2015 article in named Ellyn one of the top 10 CHROs. She is a recognized thought leader, author and frequent speaker on the topics of future workforce and inclusion and diversity. Ellyn holds a Bachelor of Science from Purdue University

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Julie Sweet

Chief Executive Officer – North
America, Accenture


Julie leads Accenture’s business in the United States—the company’s largest market—and Canada. She is also a member of Accenture’s Global Management Committee.

A leader on issues including innovation, technology’s impact on business, and inclusion and diversity, Julie serves on the board of the Business Roundtable and chairs its Technology Committee. She also serves on the Catalyst board of directors, is a member of the TechNet Executive Council, and is co-chair of the Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders. In 2018, she was named to FORTUNE’s list of “Most Powerful Women” for the third consecutive year.

Prior to assuming her current position in 2015, Julie served as Accenture’s general counsel, secretary and chief compliance officer. Before joining Accenture in 2010, she was a partner in the Corporate department of the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP.

Julie holds a Bachelor of Arts from Claremont McKenna College and a Juris Doctor from Columbia Law School. She is married and has two daughters.

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