Creating a Culture of Innovation

I've learned a lot about the culture of innovation from Craig Janssen. Many years ago, when an employee made a mistake on a project, Craig called us all together in the conference room, explained the problem with the project and asked us all to roll up our sleeves and figure out how to fix it. Interestingly, he never identified the consultant who made the mistake. He was completely solution-oriented.

It was a profound learning experience for me.

Innovation doesn't happen in a world where people aren't allowed to make mistakes. In fact, risk aversion may be the greatest ally of the status quo.

I'm not sure most people with risk-averse culture set out to make it happen this way. But, it is a rule that not everything tried works, and everything that doesn't work is a failure. And when people are belittled for their failures, they tend not to repeat the experience. (Or, they say "rain on you" and move on.)

Another component to this culture of innovation comes about in what you measure.

In our industry most keep timesheets. Billing, employee reviews, determinations of whether or not projects are profitable--all of this is measured on a weekly basis in hours. Janssen broke the rules when he set up his company and didn't ask people to keep timessheets.

This decision had unexpected results. Ben Cating on our team developed some pretty innovative automation software that wound up making everyone in our office more efficient. However, if project hours had determined his profitability, he wouldn't have spent the time developing the software that wound up making everyone more profitable. (As a side note, Ben's innovation sparked other's on our team to develop a whole host of tools that we use in house.)

I've found this measurement component plays out in the marketing world as well. My success is measured over a long view giving me the breathing room to develop pipelines of work that are largely relational. If I was measured in terms of the leads I collected and followed up on, I wouldn't invest in the slow process of building relationships. I'd be a hit woman. (Many sales teams I know are on this treadmill, but they didn't create the structure that keeps them there.)

As I was considering all of this, it occurred to me that there was likely a macro theme at work that connected the idea of allowing people to make mistakes and in what was measured. (In fact, I actually started this post weeks ago, but never finished it because the two paths seemed like unrelated thoughts.)

Then, I came across Stephen Covey's book Speed of Trust and stumbled onto the macro thought...

Simply put, trust means confidence. The opposite of trust--distrust--is suspicion. When you trust people, you have confidence in them--in their integrity and their abilities. When you distrust people, you are suspicious of them--of their integrity, their agenda, their capabilities or their track record.

Without trust, you can't ignore blame and stay solution-oriented. Without trust, you have to measure to keep people honest.

So maybe the real key to creating a culture of innovation, is in surrounding yourself with people you can trust. In that kind of environment innovation doesn't have to be prompted. It just happens.
© Random Cathy
Maira Gall