Creating a Culture of Innovation
“Learning to trust is one of life’s most difficult tasks,” says Isaac Watts.
Regardless of years of experience, each of your team members is inherently wired to be a creative problem solver.
Creating the right environment that unleashes breakthrough, innovative solutions begins with instilling trust among your entire team. This trust creates a safe and inclusive setting for idea sharing and solution finding. Trust, therefore, becomes a pivotal part of leading with an innovation mindset.
In its 2016 global CEO survey, PwC reported 55 percent of CEOs think a lack of trust is a threat to their organization’s growth.
A Decline in Trust
Trust is at an all-time low.
Trust is at an all-time low. Research by the US General Social Survey (2016) indicates that interpersonal trust continues to decline. The percentage of people who believe “most people can be trusted” fell from 46 percent in 1972 to nearly 30 percent in 2014. We should expect the trending decline to continue.
What impact might this have on your organization? In 2014, chances were that one out of every three people you hired did not trust you or each other. Projecting the trend farther into the future, it will be even fewer than that.
Trust is not a foreign concept. You are aware of the importance of establishing trust as a leader. Doing what you say you will do and creating safe spaces for your team to be vulnerable are examples of traditional trust constructs I’m sure you recognize. However, in the context of leading with an innovation mindset, trust takes on a slightly different meaning than the traditionally held import.
Trust, in the context of building a culture of innovation, suggests that you are handing over to others the responsibility to creatively solve problems of all kinds. You trust the people around you to leverage the innovation process properly and to experiment within its framework.
You trust them to be curious, inquisitive, and thought-provoking.
Four Trust Behaviors
Trust behaviors must be modeled by leaders if they are to be adopted by the organization. Within the context of a culture of innovation, trust is defined as your pledge to consistently model a set of four specific behaviors.
Behavior 1: Hear new ideas with a curious ear, and respond with interesting questions.
(Principle: My team can trust me to treat their ideas with honor, dignity, and respect in a place where they feel safe to share.)
Leading an innovation organization with an innovation mindset requires that you reliably respond to ideas with only one thing – questions.
Every time you can respond to an idea from anyone in your organization, you have the opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to transforming your culture into an innovation culture. Your response is evidence of your commitment. Leading an innovation organization with an innovation mindset requires that you reliably respond to ideas with only one thing – questions.
Why Questions Matter
Nothing communicates trust like inquisitive probing about something, whether we are interested in it deep down or not. Even if you believe the idea may not be a strong one or is off strategy, asking questions about it usually leads the presenter of such ideas to either validate your assumptions or to disprove them, thus expanding your own innovative mindset.
The key difference in responding with questions instead of statements is that the person with the idea self-evaluates the quality of their idea through your questions. They arrive at the appropriate conclusion on their own instead of being told by you that their idea is strong or weak. They learn through experience and gain understanding of the characteristics of a high-quality idea by thinking through your questions and formulating appropriate answers.
Responding to ideas with questions instead of statements pays two huge dividends. First, more staff will be inspired to think about ways to improve their work and present ideas originating from their individual perspective. Imagine having your entire staff thinking about solving problems and seizing opportunities right where they are, instead of a select few, or worse, you alone. The result will be a greater number of ideas. The more ideas that may solve a particular problem, the higher the likelihood of finding one that ends up being a game changer. Second, the quality of ideas from staff will increase significantly.
Asking Good Questions
They know you will interrogate them about their ideas by asking questions such as:
- What problem does this actually solve?
- Is this problem a symptom or do you know the root cause of the problem you have identified?
- Whose problem is this?
- How long has this problem been going on?
- Why has it not been solved already?
- What/who inspired this idea?
- What needs to be true about this idea for it to be a success?
- Who did you talk to or collaborate with to help refine this idea?
- What resources will be needed to launch this idea?
- How has this idea changed between the time you first thought of it and today?
- What other ideas did you consider but rejected and why?
- What would cause this idea to fail?
- Who would be on the team that could develop this idea further?
- In what ways can this idea be bigger, ground-breaking, or transformational?
- What conditions would make this idea fail?
Over time, your staff and your leaders will present higher quality ideas because your questions will become their questions, and they will more thoroughly assess their ideas before they engage in a conversation about them with you. The time invested in this one attribute of leading with an innovation mindset could pay big dividends.
Behavior 2: Protect the sharing of all ideas and the people who share them.
(Principle: There will be no future repercussions to a team member’s reputation or career for sharing wild, outlandish, or opposing ideas.)
One of the biggest reasons why people who are new in their careers do not bother thinking about new and different ideas is the stigma that we have manufactured around ideas that are too far “out of the box.” Consequently, they might miss the chance to contribute an idea that could ignite transformation within their organization.
Celebrate the outlandish nature of wild thinking.
The possibility that sharing one crazy idea might brand them for the rest of their career as a loose, undisciplined maverick will keep them from pursuing ideas that are off the map. Yet those are the types of ideas that push us to seek new, better, bigger destinations and result in breakthrough innovations.
Remember, younger people tend to possess greater ability for developing transformative ideas. Their ability to think freely (within a framework) about big ideas (that provide business value) is the fuel that powers the future of your organization.
Celebrate the outlandish nature of wild thinking. Remember too, that if you are open to hearing all ideas, without judgment, the ideas you hear may be wild, but they will exist within a framework of solid thinking.
Behavior 3: Establish idea equity.
(Principle: I will always welcome analysis and feedback of my own ideas and acknowledge that once my ideas are spoken, they are no longer mine alone. They are to be evaluated with the same weight as all the other ideas from everyone else.)
One of the most difficult things we can do as leaders is relinquish ownership of our ideas. Remember, it is the voice of traditional leadership behavior that tells us we must be the sole originators of ideas. People who lead with an innovation mindset know this is not true. An innovation leader believes in the power of “we over me.” What would make you think your ideas are better than everyone else’s?
Behavior 4: Even though as the leader I have the authority to do so, I will not circumvent the steps of the innovation process.
(Principle: I will model what trusting the process looks like.)
Any practicing innovator will tell you “trust the process!” The design thinking process has worked for thousands of years. It always has, and it always will, but I have seen many leaders’ compromise, water down, or altogether ignore the stages of the innovation process. This disregard is due to several reasons.
Any practicing innovator will tell you “trust the process!”
First, many leaders have a proclivity for action. They want to see things happen. For that reason, they have a tendency to ignore the “Discover” phase and begin with “Design,” then rush into “Deploy” – or go straight to “Deploy.”
Another reason process steps are ignored is due to unrealistic expectations in deploying an idea. Personal ego can get in the way and push leaders to avoid prototyping or testing because they do not want the unexpected outcomes to reflect negatively on their reputation as a leader.
Do any of these scenarios describe you at times? If so, you are not alone. But if you desire to create an innovation organization, you must demonstrate to your team that following the process matters a great deal to you. You must overcome any temptation to compromise the process and show the organization that you will not exit one stage of the process and go to the next one until every aspect of that stage has been fully explored and the outcome validated. If others see you cutting corners, they will feel enabled to do the same and innovation will not take hold at your organization.
A Great Place to Start
Trust allows difficult and challenging conversations about the status quo, new directions, and alternative strategies, to take place in healthy ways. Before working to create innovation capabilities, think about what type of innovation culture you want for your organization. Redefining trust is a good place to start.
(This article is adapted from Michael McCathren’s new book, 6Ps of Essential Innovation, Ripples Media llc, June 29, 2022).
Michael McCathren leads Enterprise Innovation at Chick-fil-A, is an adjunct professor in the Terry College of Business, University of Georgia, teaching Innovation Management in the Professional MBA program, holds a Master of Science degree in Innovation from Northeastern University in Boston, and is the author of 6Ps of Essential Innovation: Creating the Culture and Capabilities of a Resilient Innovation Organization (Ripples Media llc, June 29, 2022).