Innovation is not a word that should be used frivolously. However, in recent years it has become a throwaway term that is frequently applied in reference to a product, act, or outcome. Few people use innovation to describe a continuous cycle or collective – a culture.
In my experience, innovation as a culture is a ‘way of life’, a place to mix beliefs, knowledge and behaviours, which is why my organisation has adopted a set of company values that are built into everything we do. These drive all of our actions, from how we hire people, to how we conduct business. They are honesty, humility, kindness, reliability, and self-direction.
However, having values is only part of the process. In order to participate and develop a culture, you need people who not only believe in those values, but who act on them. When I am asked about innovation I don’t point to the product. I point to our people and how they make the product happen.
To cultivate a culture focused on innovation, I recommend allowing for the following six types of freedom that enable growth and create transparency and harmony in our company:
Freedom to fail
Embrace and learn from failure. Not everyone is perfect, not everyone knows everything. But, the true defining bit of character that distinguishes good employees from the rest is how they respond to failure.
As a company, we don’t see work-related mistakes or failures as career damaging. They are “things that didn’t work”. What should make all the difference is how employees and the company move on from the mistake by using it as an opportunity to learn and determine how to do things differently next time.
Freedom to disagree
Innovation can be found in disagreements. Or let’s call them ‘vibrant’ debates. These are great opportunities to form new ideas, for principles and assumptions to be challenged and explored, to determine better outcomes or discontinue projects that just aren’t working. By being free to disagree, people are pushed towards growth. It’s important for there not to be winners or losers, but only new ways of doing things. In the end, the company will always win.
In the world of software development, it’s far less costly to have an explosive planning meeting where part of the application architecture is hotly disputed than it is to release a product to paying customers that is adopted and crumbles under stress.
Freedom to speak up
Creating an environment where anyone can talk to anyone about anything and say whatever they want means that ideas and innovations can flow from everywhere. People should also be encouraged to discuss topics and problems across departments to allow ideas and solutions to flow and be heard from different perspectives. Sometimes the best innovations come from a person’s ‘naïve’ understanding of the problem, because they are an outsider to a problem and can disrupt the status quo and open up the possibility for true innovation.
Freedom to be different
Diversity fuels innovation and should be a focus for every modern organisation. If you only work with people who are all like you then there is the danger that nothing will ever change.
Innovation does not grow in isolation; if there is diversity in thinking, there is diversity in solutions. Time should also be made to learn from industry leaders and people who bring a fresh, outside perspective to the one you’re operating in.
Freedom to be smart
Hire smart people, even if they are smarter than you. I’m not afraid for others to be make me feel stupid and I encourage that across the company. There’s no room for self-importance. Advice and direction can come from anyone, and it’s essential to not take yourself too seriously.
Also, let your employees get on with it. Once they know what job needs to be done then let them do their job and show you that they are good at what they do, which encourages people to think for themselves.
Freedom to take risks
Allow your employees to take risks even if they might not lead to success. This shouldn’t be a reason for not trying, you need to experiment and try different things to keep moving ahead. Without risks, companies will stagnate and fall behind.
You have to dive into things knowing that some will pay-off and others won’t. For example, we added analytics to our product, which was a great success, unlike when we tried to add gamification that alas failed. However, we have not given up on that! Innovation is a continuous state.
Creating a culture of innovation doesn’t really start or end in one place, it’s not a straight line or structured process. An organisation should mirror a sum of all of its employees, not the product or the founder. A business is nothing without its people and continually adapting means you can better suit and improve employee and user needs. Building trust and a collaborative working environment enables companies to grow as a team to unlock unchartered territory and create new organisational outcomes.
Sam Clarke is CEO and founder of Skynamo, developers of cloud-based field sales management software and a mobile sales app used by sales reps and their managers. Skynamo uses GPS tracking to provide visibility into field sales activity, reduce time spent on administrative tasks and create coaching opportunities that lead to higher sales. The Skynamo mobile sales app and software are used by over 5,000 users at 440 companies with teams of reps in the field who regularly visit and service or sell to an existing customer base.