Do you “Think Different?” Encourage Innovation in Your Company Culture

By Carole Wehn

It’s hard to believe that Apple was struggling in the late ‘90s. People viewed the company’s products as only usable by creative types and didn’t like the unique operating system they employed. Then Steve Jobs engaged the advertising agency Chiat/Day, and they created the “Think Different” series of television commercials and ads.

Apple’s new ad campaign celebrated visionaries as diverse as Einstein, Edison, Gandhi, and Picasso, calling these legendary people “the ones who see things differently.” Some may have viewed them as crazy, but history has borne out their genius. The ads sparked a turnaround that made Apple the successful company it is today.

How do you respond to those in your organization who “think different?” Do you consider them to be crazy, or are they visionary? Do you encourage employees to think outside the box and take risks? Does your company culture promote innovation and intelligent risk-taking?

Innovate or Die

Management guru and author Peter Drucker coined the phrase “innovate or die.” Businesses need to meet the evolving demands of fickle consumers and customers.  Senior leaders tend to focus on product development processes, stage gates, and decision points when addressing the need for innovation. But even the best process or innovative idea won’t succeed if the company doesn’t have a risk-taking or innovation-supporting culture.

Unfortunately, most employees are afraid of taking risks at work. According to author Jim Haudan in Inc.com, “Some say they don’t have enough support from managers or leaders, others are afraid of mistakes or failure, and many don’t know where the risks should be taken or how to start.” In addition, they’ve heard plenty of stories of people who were punished for taking risks that didn’t work out. As a result, Haudan says, they “play not to lose instead of playing to win.”

A risk-taking culture isn’t created by establishing a fun, collaborative office layout or an innovation lab. As with any cultural change, you must focus on revising employee behaviors. As CultureWise CEO and author David J. Friedman said in his book Culture by Design,

“Behaviors, because they’re more action-oriented, tend to be much clearer, and so they’re easier to guide, coach, teach, and provide feedback on.”

The senior team must lead the way when driving culture change. They must communicate and demonstrate the new behaviors that encourage a risk-taking environment.

3 Core Behaviors Help Innovation Flourish in Your Culture
Before an innovative culture can take root, leaders need to establish three basic behaviors that will provide fertile soil.

1. Embracing change and growth

2. Speaking straight

3. Debate and alignment

Embracing Change and Growth

How do your employees respond when it’s time to implement a new system? Is there a lot of groaning and support for retaining the old system? Is “but that’s how we’ve always done it” a recurring refrain?

Before you can have a culture where innovation thrives, your employees must get comfortable being uncomfortable. They need to have a mindset of finding ways to do their jobs better, faster, and more efficiently.  They need to be willing to reject the status quo and kill the sacred cows if there are better approaches to work.

Helping your team see the positives that can come from change is foundational to encouraging innovation and risk-taking. Embracing change and growth spurs creativity and innovation; it opens the door to possibilities. Employees with positive and open-minded attitudes about change see things in a new light. This mindset inspires greater achievements. 

Speaking Straight

An environment where people “speak straight” is one where co-workers speak honestly in a way that helps to move the business forward. Employees are willing to ask questions, share ideas, or raise issues that may cause conflict when it’s necessary for team success. They are courageous enough to say what needs to be said.

In Harvard Business Review, Harvard professor and author Gary P. Pisano describes this type of environment as providing “psychological safety.” He said, “psychological safety is an organizational climate in which individuals feel they can speak truthfully and openly about problems without fear of reprisal.” He qualified that it’s a two-way street—not only can I criticize you, but you can criticize me regardless of our organizational levels.

Speaking straight requires the courage to say what we mean, even when it may run counter to prevailing thought, when it might cause conflict, or when it might be uncomfortable. There can be a considerable cost to the organization when people don’t speak straight. Direct, honest discussion prevents the inefficiency of having supervisors resolve their subordinates’ issues. Employees won’t avoid each other because they don’t want to be confrontational.

Speaking straight is especially important when it comes to out-of-the-box thinking. A culture of straight talk includes the willingness to say “no” when it comes to the go/no-go decisions surrounding innovation. This includes killing an idea championed by a senior executive if it’s proven to be not commercially feasible. Employees need to feel safe making those calls, and the leadership team needs to accept the efforts that led to those decisions.

Debate and Alignment

An offshoot of speaking straight is to promote debate, followed by alignment once a decision is reached. Healthy, vigorous debate creates better solutions. However, the debate should focus on concepts without personal attacks against the speaker. Encourage employees to check their egos and push for the best solution rather than their solution.

Pisano noted, “If people are afraid to criticize, openly challenge superiors’ views, debate the ideas of others, and raise counter perspectives, innovation can be crushed.”

Global leadership consultant and author Timothy R. Clark suggested in Harvard Business Review:

“If you want your team to innovate, you need to create a culture of intellectual bravery, in which team members are willing to disagree, dissent, or challenge the status quo even when it requires they risk being embarrassed marginalized or punished.”

This means giving staff a “license to disagree.” Encourage employees to disagree without creating tension, getting personal, or going silent.

The leaders must create this environment by making it safe to speak up. Employees will always try to protect themselves. They will avoid the behaviors that led co-workers to be marginalized, punished in some way, or embarrassed.

Clark provides seven ways for leaders to cultivate “intellectual bravery” in their organizations:

  1. Watch for ways you might be creating fear, even unconsciously. This includes cutting off the conversation, rolling your eyes, or putting someone down when they ask a question.
  2. Assign someone to take the dissenting view in discussions. Rotate the role, so it’s not always the same person playing devil’s advocate.
  3. Encourage employees to think beyond their functional silos. Provide exposure to cross-functional teams where they can hear different perspectives.
  4. Respond appropriately when someone contributes an out-of-the-box idea. Listen with empathy and curiosity to know more. Be aware of body language and look directly at the speaker.
  5. When you need to reject an idea, explain why. That way, the person will be more likely to continue contributing future ideas.
  6. Weigh in last. If you give your opinion first, the team will only pursue your idea, and the discussion will shut down.
  7. Model vulnerability. Share your mistakes and admit what you don’t know. Ask questions.

Being an Innovation Champion

While the three core behaviors listed above provide a solid foundation for a culture of innovation, they alone are not enough.

Corning’s technology chief Dr. Waguih Ishak said in McKinsey Quarterly,

“In my experience, innovative cultures start with a philosophy and a tone – one analogous to the classic parenting advice that children need both ‘roots and wings.’ As an innovation leader, you must ground creative people in accountability for the organization’s objectives, key focus areas, core capabilities, and commitments to stakeholders. Then you give them broad discretion to conduct their work in service of those parameters.”

Recruiting the best talent and articulating your expected performance standards is crucial. But focusing on intelligent risk-taking is just as critical. Not all change is good, and not all failures should be celebrated.

Pisano added to this concept in Harvard Business Review:

Without discipline, almost anything can be justified as an experiment. Discipline-oriented cultures select experiments carefully on the basis of their potential learning value, and they design them rigorously to yield as much information as possible relative to the costs. They establish clear criteria at the outset for deciding whether to move forward with, modify, or kill an idea. And they face the facts generated by experiments.” 

As an innovation leader, you also need to model discipline. Show that you are willing to change your mind based on the results of an experiment. Be ready to forego a pet project that you championed.

Convey to your teams that innovation isn’t all fun and playing in the sandbox. Yes, trying something new and collaborating with others is exciting. Learning from experimentation leads to celebration. But there is also a need for discipline and accountability. Employees need to own their decisions.

Take the Next Step

Changing your company culture to one that supports innovation and intelligent risk-taking can be challenging. Some employees will love the opportunities it creates; others will be hesitant to leave their comfort zones. Leaders need to walk the fine line between encouraging creativity and maintaining discipline.

CultureWise can help. Schedule a call with a CultureWise specialist to learn more about creating an exceptional workplace culture. And sign up for a complimentary subscription to the Culture Matters newsletter to receive informative culture-related articles, videos, podcast episodes, and webinar offers every week.

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