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Trust is the currency for a culture of innovation

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Most organizations agree that being innovative, agile, or transformative is on their strategic checklist, but by 2020 the hype cycle of corporate innovation has crested. It was never the case that walls of sticky notes, ideas scrawled on whiteboards, and exposed brick walls meant innovation was brewing. These are but a few superficial signals known as “Innovation Theater,” a wasted opportunity to focus on meaningful change.

No matter which process or tool de jour is implemented, there are still people involved, so organizations need to focus on creating a primordial soup to perpetuate innovation. It can be summed up with one word — culture. Without culture undergirded by authentic trust, it’s extremely difficult to take the necessary risks for innovation or challenge the status quo. Most organizations are structured with a hierarchy, but that 20th century management artifact is inadequate because innovation means challenging conventions, norms, and assumptions. Corporate hierarchy evolved to maintain standard operations under the presumption that what worked over the past 50 years will work for another 50. Ask Kodak.

Old regime style surveils and monitors workers because it justifies management’s existence. This resulted in worker adaptation (filling time) because of a lack of autonomy. Furthermore, the old guard equates butts in seats with “good workers.” They don’t accept that innovative truths require employees to be curious explorers who often go outside the building. It’s challenging to imagine that staring into a screen all day will somehow enable someone to discover the next amazing innovation. Outmoded management models, structures, and approaches don’t translate into discovery of insight in markets with high ambiguity and volatility. They also fail at translating fledgling innovations back into functional utility for the core business.

Innovative cultures are structured and behave differently. They have an authentic covenant of person-to-person trust. Trust seeds relationships beyond transactional interactions of workers and management. It’s critical to foster empathetic reciprocity in work relationships apart from job roles. Culture is both top-down and bottom-up, but realistically with the power dynamic of most workplaces, the seeds of an innovative culture need to start with senior leadership regularly demonstrating behaviors of trust.

There are three ways to begin:

1. As a leader, you may think it’s incumbent on you to be “right” about everything. Challenge that notion. Ego aside, what would happen if you said to your team, “I don’t know?” or “I need your help?” Think about the opportunity it provides and the sense of worth it builds in your team members. Your vulnerability seeds trust.

2. Empower people to do their jobs, then stay out of their way. To remove barriers, be open as a coach and as a resource. Whenever possible, give employees the option to be remote, or to regularly engage with others along the value chain. Challenge them to explore and bring back new insights from the field.

3. Create meaning and shared purpose. Whether you turn a wrench or cure cancer, shared purpose matters. Defining meaning in the workplace isn’t merely euphemistic spin because filling the human spirit matters. Example: You can order, “Sarah, here’s the next task for you to complete,” or you can issue a challenge such as “Sarah, I need YOUR talents for this mission!” It reminds me of a famous quote from French writer Antoine De Saint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.” Shared purpose matters for trust, culture, and innovation.

The primary takeaway is that innovation requires a culture built on authentic trust, and these limited examples are just a beginning.

Scott Kohl is the CEO and co-founder of ThirdSpace in Madison, a software platform focused on transforming company culture.

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