Playing catch-up with the competition is the worst fear of an entrepreneur/CEO/business owner/team lead, you name it, because it is very clear that if you don’t innovate, you will surely be out of business or out of a job.
The most innovative team I was part of so far was VectorWatch, a startup team. We had built the world’s first 30+ days smartwatch that had full connectivity, always on display, looked and felt like a luxury watch while also being affordable, and all this was in 6 years ago. The startup was later acquired by Fitbit in 2016. Apart from the custom Operating System, technical innovations and patents, the team also had great ideas on the marketing and sales side. The entire team glued together and most conversations were brainstorms. Ideas were popping in each talk, at every corner and everyone was contributing in a big way.
In this article I will try to capture the key ingredients that I think are critical for every team in order to be innovative and successful.
This brings us back to the important question: how to innovate? How do you get your people to get innovative ideas? Scratch that, at least how would you get novel ideas that you can put to use and take your business to new heights or come up with new products?
There are a few myths around innovation that are out there and we will try to break, but first let’s start with what innovation is:
“Innovation is the process of creating value by applying novel solutions to meaningful problems.”
But every idea or new way can add a small value. Does that mean that everybody is innovative at their core? I think we have to introduce something new here that is “significance”
“Creative ideas that are executed upon and bring significant value”
Now that does sound better. If it doesn’t matter (to someone), we shouldn’t call it innovation.
The correct way is to say foster innovation and not create it, because I think the use of the create word is absolutely wrong. One simply cannot create innovation on demand. You cannot go to your employees or colleagues and demand them to have “innovative ideas”. The most ridiculous thing that I have heard from big companies was that a manager told his team that every Friday from 2 to 3 pm they have their calendars booked to come up with innovative ideas. Although the idea of giving time to people to do other things besides their usual tasks is good, we will see in the following sections that the idea of conditioning innovation is absurd.
Speaking at a conference about innovation, a Developer Evangelist from a FAANG company was bragging to me about how his company creates innovation through their great process. We had a 2 hour discussion and by the end of it I was glad I could convince him otherwise:
companies don’t create innovation, especially through process, the best thing they can do is first, to foster it through their culture
and second, to create those “processes” that can capture it from employees and put it on the company’s roadmap. Innovation is chaotic and, most of the time, if you look backwards, it may come across as an accident.
Penicillin is one example — and a Nobel prize winning one. Another good example of an “accident” that led to innovation is the Microwave oven. Both of them were certainly not the result of a clear and structured process but “happy accidents” that changed the lives of millions.
Now what are the ingredients for people to get more innovative ideas? Is there a map for this or are there some universal things that have to happen?
Let’s take them one by one:
The right culture — TRUST
Yes, company culture, that mumbo jumbo, but I am not talking here about the slogans that have everybody roll out their eyeballs, but something else. I am talking about much deeper things and the most important one here is TRUST.
You have to have trust, otherwise people will not push/talk about their ideas. If they fear for their ideas being stolen or not getting any credit for them don’t even bother to expect innovation to happen.
There has to be trust among colleagues and senior leadership. This is a hard thing to do and is a burden on the senior leaders to foster the right culture, as most definitely the right culture is one based on trust. This is the most critical thing that has to happen. It’s been the stepping stone of modern society, capitalism and evolution throughout history and keeps being the most important thing at the workplace too.
People have to work well in teams. And here is where school and some state universities get it all wrong. They tend to focus more on individual accomplishments and skills rather than on teamwork. I see this behavior a lot in young grads on their first job. Although the university they are graduating is great at technical concepts, they lack the experience of working in teams.
People must collaborate because this is how ideas can get to the next level, not only with their day to day peers but with people from other departments as well. Let’s take software development as an example. In a big organization the path between the customer need and the implementation goes a very long way; it’s such a long way that important pieces of the customer need get lost down the road. The most successful engineers I saw are the ones that truly understand the problem and collaborate with their colleagues (marketing, sales, customer support representatives, product and other engineers) in order to find the right solution. And you can find the right solution only when you truly understand the problem and it takes all of those different viewpoints in order for you to do so.
It is important to have people in the same room. Why do you think big corporations have generous travel budgets? Having Zoom, Skype, or other virtual meetings does not cut it. You have to get everybody in the same room from time to time because you need to build trust and to have them collaborate. I haven’t seen a Zoom meeting where novel ideas sparkle, or great brainstorming sessions happen.
When in proximity, we tap some higher level of knowledge and understanding that we don’t know it’s there but that is manifested.
The value resides in the things we know that we don’t know. Sounds funny, right? I will say it again: there are things we know that we actually are not aware of until we start bouncing ideas with other people. We simply could not have come up with those solutions on our own, though when talking with somebody else, those solutions come to surface.
How is that possible?
Michael Polanyi has an interesting research on tacit knowledge and the fact that:
“we can know more than we can tell” — Michael Polanyi
He states not only that there is knowledge that cannot be adequately articulated by verbal means, but also that all knowledge is rooted in tacit knowledge.
Things like playing an instrument, riding a bicycle, speaking a language are things that can’t be explicitly transferred to other people. You can’t just write down the process of learning to play the piano and expect somebody to read it and learn to play that instrument right away. For this to happen, one would need a teacher whom they have a good relationship with (trust), that is near in order to show them all the information and practice required to play the piano (proximity) and only after several lessons the skill gets “magically” transferred.
Proximity also helps the process of coming up with innovative ideas due to the fact that through proximity we are also engaging our “tacit knowledge” that can surface ideas in our minds like a master whisperer.
There can be a lot said on this topic and the internet is full of articles describing the advantages of having diverse teams. I will only focus on the innovation aspect here.
Having diverse team members means having colleagues from different backgrounds that were raised in different environments, which implies having a diverse tacit knowledge experience, which enhances the space for novel ideas that can be generated.
In a startup, having a diverse team is a competitive advantage and even investors look for this before putting their money on the table. The reason is simple: it is such an uncharted journey and the fact that the team can produce ”novel ideas” is a must in order for it to be alive and sky rocket into the next unicorn out there.
From my experience at Vector Watch we had a small but diverse team. As our main founder said, we were “a bunch of misfits”, all different in our nature, but that came together beautifully as a team. The “working” tensions between our personalities had pushed the product for success, each of us contributing with great ideas that gave the startup a competitive advantage. Go for a diverse team, not for like minded people!
To sum it all up, these are the three “commandments of innovation”. You will need all three to get the most out of your organization:
- Create a culture of trust and transparency. This is a lot for the leaders to do and for everyone else to maintain and spread it in the organization.
- Encourage collaboration & proximity: Get people in a physical room. These are the best meetings where you can solve strategic problems, come up with solutions, and do roadmap plannings.
- Build a diverse team and don’t forget about inclusion. This also ties with trust and the fact that everybody should feel valued and that they belong.
If your environment lacks innovation, then get your magnifier glass and see what commandments you are breaking. Hopefully not the one about trust, because that is the hardest to repair but also the most valuable.