Innovate Team Resized 2.0

How to Create a Team Culture of Innovation

Fast Company recently published its annual list of the world’s 50 most innovative companies. While there are new additions to the list that have cool new products and/or business models, there are companies that appear on this list year after year – companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Apple.  It is remarkable how certain companies, particularly large complex organizations, are able to create and sustain cultures that foster innovation over the long term. Let’s take a look at what I believe are the building blocks to creating an innovative team culture.

Google’s Research on Teams
Five years ago, Google began an initiative to study hundreds of its teams to figure out why some were high performers and others failed.  In a recent New York Times article called What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” the author describes the following key findings from Google’s research on team performance:

  • Good teams are characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect that create psychological safety.
  • The influence of group norms on team performance is profound.

Perhaps Google’s research validates what we already knew from Katzenbach and Smith, and others, about the importance of team members having a common purpose, inter-dependence, trust and commitment.  What is noteworthy, however, is how profoundly group norms affected the performance of the Google teams.  It is this element, behavioral norms, that lies at the heart of creating truly innovative teams.

Behavioral Norms for Innovation
Whether related to a new product, process or business model, innovation thrives when the leader creates cultural norms that allow people to do the messy and unpredictable work that is required to innovate.  According to Linda Hill, author of Collective Genius (HBR Press, 2014), that messy and unpredictable work includes:

  • Collaboration – Innovation arises from the bouncing of ideas among people with diverse experience and points of view.  In order to create a collaborative environment there must be cultural norms that support inter-dependence and team behaviors.
  • Discovery-driven learning – Innovation requires having a trial-and-error mindset.  In order to create a discovery-driven learning environment, there must be a cultural norm that says it’s okay to fail.  Failure, and learning quickly from failure, is simply part of the process.
  • Integrative decision-making – Innovative organizations are able to integrate different ideas.  Hill describes it as “combining option A and option B to create something new, option C, that’s better than A or B.”  In order to have integrative decision-making, there must be a cultural norm that says constructive debate is not only okay, but encouraged.

Leadership Role in Innovation
Companies like Amazon, Facebook and Apple are able to innovate effectively, again and again, because they put process first.  Rather than relying on a handful of leaders with vision to make things happen by themselves, they unleash the power of their diverse teams to innovate.  They do this by fostering a culture where collaboration, discovery-driven learning and integrative decision-making are allowed to happen.

Further, innovative companies believe that you can’t have hierarchy if you want innovation.  They consistently indicate that the leader of the team must let go of trying to control the innovation process.  At IDEO, a company whose name is synonymous with innovation, their mantra is: enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius.”  They put process before individuals and encourage their teams to have fun, generate wild ideas and build on the ideas of others.

You Get What You Nurture
Creating a culture of innovation takes a lot of care.  You have to hire the right people, establish the right behavioral norms and reward the desired behaviors.  In sum, such a culture must be nurtured for it to thrive and be sustainable.

An example of fostering a culture of innovation is described in the book The Creative Spirit (Goleman, Kaufman and Ray, 1992):

In the 1950’s, a mother created a home environment that nurtured her son’s creativity.  As a youngster working to earn a Boy Scout merit badge in film-making, the boy got the inspiration to make a horror movie.  For one shot he needed red, bloody-looking goop to ooze from kitchen cabinets.  So his mother went out, bought thirty cans of cherries, and dumped the cherries into the pressure cooker, rendering a delightfully oozy red goop.  This bloody kitchen scene, she recalled much later, left her picking cherries out of her cupboards for years…. She gave him free rein of the house, letting him convert it into his film studio.  She helped him make costumes and even acted in his films.  The boy’s name was Steven Spielberg.

What Spielberg’s mom did for him is what leaders must to do for their teams.  They need to create an environment where it’s okay to experiment and be messy.  Further, they need to support the behaviors of collaboration, constructive debate and integration of people’s ideas.

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