05 November 2019

Creating a Culture of Breakthrough Innovators

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower”-Steve Jobs


Creating breakthrough innovation is not easy. If it was everyone would do it. It takes the right team dynamics, collaboration, and overall commitment to the bigger picture of what a breakthrough innovation could mean for your organization.


Innovation is your competitive advantage in the marketplace. And while there isn’t a secret formula, there are practices that enable real innovation with real results. Today we will look at three of those powerful practices.




Is Your Team Safe? 


“Most innovators today are not individuals they are teams.” – Bill George


Most of us are familiar with the Google Team Study that was conducted over a two year span, leveraging more than 200 interviews to find out what it takes to make a great team. Five attributes emerged during this interview:


  1. Dependability - Can we count on you?
  2. Structure & Clarity – Are the goals and roles on the team clear?
  3. Meaning of Work – Are we working on things that matter to us?
  4. Impact of Work – Do we believe that our work matters to others?
  5. Psychological Safety – Can we take risks & put our ideas out there free of insecurity or embarrassment?


The fifth attribute is the one to focus on because it is the attribute that is the hardest to acquire on a team. So how do you know if your team is safe, and how do you create an environment of safety? When your team is approaching a new idea or product for the marketplace how do you facilitate those meetings?


Do you have the ”bull in the china shop” that demands to be heard no matter what, along with the wallflower who has great ideas but a voice that isn’t loud enough to be heard? Try pairing your teams into smaller groups of 3 and allow them to work through their thoughts, dialogue with customers, and do some research before landing on a direction.


The goal of innovation, if you want to create it as a culture, is to create shared ownership within your teams. If their ideas are not surfacing the ownership will never transfer from you to them.


Remember, just telling everyone what they are working on is faster but getting the best ideas out of everyone and creating psychological safety on your team is better in the longer term. Or put another way by an African proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”.


Action Step, Consider Your Play


The next time you have a new idea or product innovation, pull together a cross-functional team and break them up into groups of twos or threes. Give them some time to go off and improve on the idea.


Allow them to talk to customers, do some research and bounce ideas off of other colleagues. Let them create shared ownership for the idea. Most projects fail because of a lack of buy-in.


This is an incredibly easy step to create buy-in and raise the level of innovation throughout the building.




Do You Allow Failure? 


“There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.” - Brene Brown


Growing up in Corporate America, one of the companies I worked for early in my career taught me to fail fast, fail cheap, and fail often.


But let’s be clear, not all corporate environments have this philosophy. Some would say failure equals a loss of your dignity, and potentially even your job. What is your organization's stance on failure?


No one goes to work hoping to feel criticized or condemned for their mistakes, and no one sets out to fail on purpose. In turn, people tend to hide their mistakes when they feel they will be criticized. But these mistakes hold pathways to innovation if we are allowed to safely explore how and why we failed.


I once sat through a “lessons learned” exercise where no one would admit that they did anything wrong but you could see the mistakes all over the project. Talk about an environment of fear creating a layer of denial!


It is in that exploration that we create new pathways for success. If we sweep our failures under the rug, no one learns, grows, or gets better. But if we can highlight why we failed and what did not work, and remain inquisitive, we can move our entire team from critical to be curious. And curiosity is required if we want to create a culture of innovation.


Action Step, Consider Your Play


If you are a leader, you have to lead the way. What’s something you tried multiple times that failed before it succeeded? Share this with your team and ask for their moments as well. Creating an environment where you don’t have to pretend to be perfect fosters trust, which in turn fosters innovation.




Do You Set the Tone?


“You can’t create an idea behind a desk, you have to go out into the field. This way you present an innovative solution not just an idea” - Dave Allen


The last question to ask is, “Do you set the tone for how innovation should be done within your organization?” I had a chance to catch up with a friend and former colleague of mine, Dave Allen, who focuses on technology innovation within a billion-dollar organization. Dave says, “Innovation is ownership. It’s not just about throwing an idea over the wall. It is about vetting the idea, testing it in the marketplace, and executing on it.” As the leader, we have to create an environment where ideas can be heard, and a process where team members can vet those ideas and see them through.


If we asked everyone for their ideas we would be inundated. But what if we gave people a few hours each week to work on their ideas and build the idea out?


When I asked Dave how this works for his organization he mentioned that team members are presenting the solution, not just the idea. The team member must take interest and ownership of their idea.


If we can tell that they have spent time thinking about the idea and building it out we can shepherd them through getting their ideas heard.


Action Step, Consider Your Play


When I asked Dave what are the 3 most important things you look for when vetting an idea he answered with the following:


  • How curious are you? Team members must put in the time to show they have done their research.
  • What problem are you trying to solve?  A real understanding of the market need is critical prior to launching your idea.
  • Who is your customer? When creating new product innovations stop the line if you haven’t spoken with your customer! Is it urgent for your customer to buy now?


By setting the environment, allowing for failure, and putting some structure around teams and ideas, you’ve now created a pathway to innovation within your organization. Of course, this is just the beginning of creating a culture of breakthrough innovators.


When team members feel heard, they are engaged and when they are engaged, they love coming to work. Innovation builds excitement and engagement within the organization. It’s your competitive advantage in the marketplace and for the war on talent.




About the Author: 


Natalie Born is an innovation strategist. She has spent the last 15 years designing and creating products with the goal of creating customer delight. She has contributed to two approved US patents during her career and is passionate about helping organizations leverage the incredible talent they have to create the outcomes they want.


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Innovation Meets Leadership