Updated: Dec 3, 2018
When I was ready to find a topic for my PhD dissertation research in 2008, my mentor pushed me to find one that I would be proud of. "One that will have a positive impact on your life, and the lives of others." A pretty tall order. I still struggled with the topic, and grew increasingly annoyed. Eventually, he asked the pivotal question:
What pisses you off?
I worked in many startup companies. I even founded a couple of startup companies in my own home, back in Israel. I sold one startup company, and I was involved in acquiring another. But in 2008, I worked for Texas Instruments. A company that, with 35,000 employees and 75-year legacy, was anything but a startup. I felt the difference between the startups and the large company, but couldn't really pinpoint it. So when my mentor asked me what pissed me off, I almost instinctively replied:
Why are people so much more creative when they work in startups than when they work in large, mature companies?
There were a few seconds of silence on the other side of the line (this was a telephone call), and then he said: "I believe we have a topic..."
I spent the next two years researching the answer to this exact question. I interviewed 21 participants who worked in both startups and mature companies and were thus in a position to compare those environments. Those were people who currently worked in startups, or currently worked in mature companies. They were all over the US (and by that, I don't mean just Texas...), Europe, Israel, and China. Some were technologists, and some were business or marketing people. I published my findings in a 348-page dissertation, From Startup to Maturity: A case study of employee creativity antecedents in high tech companies (and yes, "antecedents" in a word. A pretty fancy word for an Israeli...).
The next annoying question I would get, after publishing my dissertation, defending it, and earning my PhD, was:
So, what is it?
Really??? You want me to boil two years of research and 348 pages down to a single sentence???
But my annoyance gave place to a realization. I could boil it down to not only one sentence, but to one word: Innovation Culture. OK, two words... My research led me to realize that there are really three elements to a culture of innovation. In organizations that have a high level of innovation culture, leaders give AUTONOMY, followers demonstrate ACCOUNTABILITY, and teams hold CONSTRUCTIVE DISAGREEMENTS. Everything else fits under those three terms.
Some of the behaviors that demonstrate the above three include: leaders who shielded their teams from the "diseases" in the organization (such as bureaucracy and other internal challenges) while exposing them to external challenges; employees who were willing to take risks and try new things, accepting the possibility of failure; and team members who were willing to be vulnerable, provide direct feedback, and be receptive to such feedback.
That's it! I thought I had the answer to what constitutes innovation culture in any company. I was ready to let my clients know that their leaders must give employees autonomy, employees must be willing to take risk, and team members must be vulnerable with one another, must provide direct feedback, and must be receptive to such feedback. Five musts.
Except that this sounds so much better on paper than in the real world. You cannot force employees to do any of the above. They have to be motivated to do them. You see, leaders would not be willing to give autonomy to just any employee. Employees would not be willing to take risk when they work for just any boss, and team members would not be willing to be vulnerable, provide feedback, and be receptive to it with just any other employee.
One day, while giving a workshop, I asked participants the following questions:
As a leader, what would allow you to give your employees autonomy?
As an employee, what would allow you to take risk?
As a team member, what would allow you to be vulnerable, give direct feedback, and be receptive to such feedback?
Even as I was asking those questions, the answer became obvious to me, and similar to what I was told by the participants:
As a leader, I would be willing to give my employees autonomy only if I trust them to not abuse it;
As an employee, I would be willing to take risk only if I trust my boss to accept the possibility of failure;
As a team member, I'm willing to be vulnerable with another team member only if I trust them to not make me regret it;
I'm willing to provide direct feedback only if I trust the other person to not take it personally and attack me back; and
I will be receptive to such feedback only it I trust the person giving it to me that they do it with my best interests in mind.
This realization gave me a new perspective on innovation, and innovation culture:
Organizations that are not innovative don't have a culture of innovation. The reason they don't have a culture of innovation is because they have low levels of trust.
I conducted several additional primary research studies that only confirmed that. More on those studies and the results from them in the second part of this article series.
From that moment on, every time an organization asked me to help them innovation (translate: generate new ideas for them), I would start by asking questions that would give us an indication of the level of trust in that organization. Every time a company complained about not being innovative enough--they also reported very low levels of trust.
The conclusion is simple:
If you think you have a low innovation level problem, what you really have is a low trust level problem. Solve that, and innovation will follow.
(Note: the author is the founder of the Innovation Culture Institute, LLC. Findings from additional research conducted by ICI will be included in the next parts of this article series).