“If you aren’t disrupting you are being disrupted.” - JOHN CHAMBERS, FORMER CISCO CEO
Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Netflix, Cisco—these organizations sit at the top of the 50 most innovative companies of 2018 listed by Consultancy.UK.
In the age of disruption, “all companies today are tech companies”, John Chambers said in Fortune’s recent Brainstorm Reinvent conference. Industry leaders have no choice but to be the disruptors. Their survival and success depends on their ability to innovate and stay ahead of the times.
The innovation process and approach—research and development, ideation, prototyping, testing—is at the heart of a tech company. What is it that enables a company and its people to excel at innovation? To come together day after day, to dream big, to create, to take risks and fail forward, to push themselves, challenge the status quo, and find solutions to today’s problems?
What the most innovative companies in the world have are cultures that create the right environment for innovation.
Elements of a culture that drives innovation
1. Permission to fail: an atmosphere that encourages risk-taking
“There is a strong acknowledgement and recognition that we won’t get everything right the first time”, says an employee at Cisco.
Because risk-taking is an inherent part of the innovation process, employees need permission to fail along the way.
Steve Blanco, CEO of Documoto, says “I trust my team by providing an environment where experimentation is encouraged and failure isn’t penalized. We believe in experimentation so much we made it one of our core principles. We recognize that not everything works out, and that’s okay”.
Great Place to Work, in 3 Ways High-Trust Tech Companies are Leading Innovation, shares that:
Successful organizations create a desire among their people to try new things. This means allowing them to take risks and giving employees the autonomy necessary to innovate. The best employers provide well-deserved recognition when ideas pan out and an understanding response when they don’t. “I feel very empowered, and I am accountable for the work my team delivers – we take educated risks and adjust as we need to”.
2. Strong collaboration and communication: camaraderie among team members
When Satya Nadella took the helm as Microsoft CEO, he “found that many of his senior managers were working in silos, more competitive than collaborative. To overcome this, Nadella began with deep listening, and focused on gaining his people's trust.”
Steve Blanco, CEO of Documoto, shares that “We encourage collaboration and communication, because innovation often springs from a clear understanding of a challenge or business problem”.
ASEC (the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants) identifies the top innovation strategy in 2018 as: “to create a culture that encourages cooperation across functions and business units and promotes risk taking.”
3. Leaders who empower the team: trusting and trustworthy leaders
Innovation starts from the top. Leadership plays the key role, setting the stage by empowering the team to take risks. This builds a culture of trust and safety.
“Any company with a leadership team committed to developing a culture of trust will eventually realize that it starts with them. That is, if they're willing to change and set the wheels in motion”, says Inc.com.
Microsoft’s Satya Nadella says that “The key to the culture change was individual empowerment. We sometimes underestimate what we each can do to make things happen, and overestimate what others need to do for us.”
Nadella shares that “during an employee Q&A when someone asked me, ‘Why can't I print a document from my mobile phone?’ I politely told him, ‘Make it happen. You have full authority.’”
No innovation without safety and trust
An atmosphere of safety is crucial because the process of innovation is iterative. Solutions and breakthroughs are the result of research, ideation, risk-taking, and testing. Unless employees are given the freedom to fail, a team cannot innovate, for fear of the consequences of failure.
Safety and trust are key elements in driving innovation. Notably, it was Google’s practice of 20% innovation during its early years, in which engineers were given the freedom to experiment on new tech solutions, that resulted in the invention of GMail, Adsense, and Google Talk.
When employees trust that their leaders have their back, and feel safe to speak their minds or pursue a gut feel, the horizon of possibilities expands, and innovation finds itself at home.