A few years ago, I went through some training in Design Thinking with the goal of creating a culture of innovation within our Product team at TalentQuest. That process changed the way I thought about product innovation and educated me on the concept of structured and sustainable innovation which I have since tried to incorporate into our product development process.
My Design Thinking professor talked about the “Moses Myth” of Innovation which suggests that innovation is a miracle dependent on a special person (some creative genius) and takes a special gift that most of us don’t have. This reflected how I had subconsciously thought about innovation up to that point. If I were to visualize innovation, I would have imagined someone brilliant, sitting alone in deep thought, with a light bulb over their head because they just came up with a brilliant idea. So this concept of structure around innovation sounded paradoxical to me at first. It seemed unnatural. Shouldn’t creativity and ideas flow more naturally? You can’t tell a musician to compose their next big hit at a specific time on a specific day, right? I learned that sometimes, to help people be more creative, we have to give them more structure. And by structure, I mean creating the right type of environment and culture where creativity and innovation becomes automatic and part of the daily process.
Easier said than done. I wanted to share some key building blocks that might help others in their journey to creating an innovative workplace. Some of these may or may not apply to your organization. Shifting culture or mindset can be a challenge, but you can make a positive impact on your team and work environment by introducing, even a few of these tips.
Organizational Strategy & Commitment
Without organizational commitment, furthering any initiative is challenging. Especially an Innovation Strategy initiative that will involve experimentation and uncertainty. To get buy-in, you first need to have a compelling reason to drive innovation. In our case the driver was survival. Being a small fish in the big pond of HR software, we needed to continuously innovate and differentiate ourselves to stay competitive. Another reason could simply be resilience. Innovative companies tend to be more resilient.
Once there is organizational buy-in, here are some things leaders can do to adjust their own mindset and to ensure the organization’s ongoing support to develop and sustain the innovation strategy:
- Be transparent and clear about the organization’s objectives. This allows for teams to focus on the right problems.
- Invest in innovation. Fund research teams. Do not make research and experimentation a side-project for teams to work on in their spare time – prioritize it.
- Budget for experimentation. Leave room for ‘productive failures’. Understand that, in this context, tolerance for failure does not mean tolerance for incompetence.
- Empower leaders at all levels to take calculated risks.
- Allow room for ideas to translate into solutions. This takes time, discipline, and patience.
- Accept the uncertainty that comes with experimentation.
Innovation cultures are not easy to create and sustain because they are progressive. They may be perceived as somewhat lackadaisical and lacking accountability, especially in an environment where principles such as ‘zero errors’ or ‘do it right the first time’ are more commonly advocated for and respected. An Innovation Culture requires a different, more trusting mindset which may be an uncomfortable switch for some organizations. If done right, not only will it create high performing and loyal teams but it will also drive sustainable innovation and product differentiation.
Here are some ways that leaders can create an environment that will foster innovation:
- Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. Creating a safe space where team members know they will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up or making mistakes is one of the most important steps toward developing an innovation culture.
- Creating this space requires trust, respect, and transparency.
- Be comfortable admitting some of your vulnerabilities to your team and leaning on them for their support. It conveys trust and will make you more relatable. It will also make your team more comfortable expressing themselves.
- Encourage collaboration. ‘Invite and Engage’ vs. ‘Command and Control’. Collaboration doesn’t necessarily mean getting consensus on every decision. It is about acquiring different perspectives.
- Diversify your workforce – encourage a learning mindset.
- Innovation cultures are typically nonhierarchical but with strong leadership. Cultural flatness does not imply organizational flatness. You can still have reporting relationships but individuals at all levels should feel comfortable contributing.
- Embrace failure. Establish the mindset that experimentation is good and will likely elicit “productive” failures. Productive failures may lead to useful exploration. Productive failures are usually calculated, iterative, fast, and cheap.
- Have honest and non-judgmental retrospectives where success and failure is discussed as a group with equal and, sometimes, brutal candidness with the sole purpose of improving as a team. Keep these retrospectives objective and respectful.
- Have fun – make people feel comfortable being themselves.
Next week, Part II of Building Blocks for an Innovative Workplace will focus on the important role that Customer Empathy brings to driving product innovation.
As the CTO at TalentQuest, Niranjan leads Product Management, Software Development and Infrastructure. He is also responsible for the company’s information security policies and compliance. Niranjan joined TalentQuest in 2007 and has more than 25 years of experience leading and managing small and large-scale software teams in several countries. He has an extensive background in software engineering, product design and agile product development across many business verticals, including manufacturing, financial services, and human capital management (HCM).