Making Innovation Happen: It Takes a Culture of Trust to Foster New Ideas


I’m sure there’s not a leader out there who would say “I don’t want an innovative team.” But how do you go from having innovation on your wish list to cultivating a thriving innovative culture in your organization every day?

Here are 3 steps that will help you get there.

1. Build trust to cultivate ideas

We know that psychological safety is a key attribute in team success, but it’s also critical for innovation. At the core of psychological safety is trust – trust that we can propose ideas without there being backlash or negative repercussions. If that doesn’t exist, you’re not going to get innovative ideas from your staff.

In many organizations, proposing new ideas is inherently risky. People don’t want to be told no, be shot down, or feel like they’re not good enough if others don’t “get it.”

You have to think about what messages you’re sending your team when they bring forward new ideas. Are you encouraging it and foster an environment that rewards that risk taking, or are you sending the message that new ideas are not welcomed?

Let me tell you a story: I once worked in an organization that liked to say it was innovative, but what they really meant was that a few of the favorites could be innovative and the rest of the staff needed to stay in line.

But one day I saw an opportunity to do something new that I believed could benefit the organization, and even though I wasn’t one of the chosen few, it would have been blatantly unprofessional of me not to propose that we go after it. The problem was time was an issue, and so I couldn’t go through the weeks/months of red tape if I was going to make it work. So I wrote a two page memo outlining the idea, had a few conversations about it with folks, and sent it up the food chain with the express understanding that I needed to get started soon if I was going to make it work.

I didn’t hear anything back for a few days and was about to hit my deadline for being able to move forward, so I pinged the key decision maker and asked if there was any word or questions I could answer. Let’s just say that the response I got back was something I would expect to get if I had murdered a panda in cold blood at an all-staff meeting. So what started as a low risk, small project to try something new and possibly see some huge gains ended with me getting the message loud and clear that my ideas were not welcome and would not be pursued.

Do you think that organization ever got another innovative idea from me again? Of course not. They had shown me that it was not a safe environment, and had broken every layer of trust that existed.

Think carefully about the messages you’re sending people when they bring forward new ideas. You don’t have to say yes to every idea, but how you respond to people matters, and will let them know if future ideas are welcome or if they should be kept to themselves.


2. Create a safe space to fail

Your people have brought you an innovative idea and you’ve told them to run with it. But what happens if it doesn’t go as planned? Will they get negatively pinged on their performance review for it?

The thing about innovation is that if you’re not failing, you’re probably not really innovating either. Just like your response to their new ideas matters, how you handle failures matters as well – if your team knows that there might be negative repercussions if things take an unexpected direction, what incentive do they have to propose truly innovative ideas in the future?

When you try new ideas, sometimes they’re not going to work out -- and that has to be OK. In fact, that’s your opportunity to turn it around and encourage future progress.

The only failure is one that we don’t learn from. If your team stumbles, don’t focus on the failure. Instead, focus their attention on what they can learn and how to do it better next time. Then send them off to put those ideas into action and try again.

Do this consistently and you’ll send the message that failing is OK, as long as they learn from it, iterate, and improve.

3. Carve out time for it

Most people don’t have a ton of free time on their hands at work, so if you want to make innovation a priority, you have to build it into the workflow. A lot of people have heard of Google’s famous 80/20 rule for innovation, which allowed their staff to spend 20 percent of their time on activities they think will benefit the company, but were outside of their formal roles.

But what a lot of people don’t realize is that Google started scaling the 80/20 rule back a few years ago, in favor of more focused innovation efforts that involved fewer people. They did this partially because some of their managers had started encouraging their to spend 100 percent of their time focused on their jobs so that they could meet core productivity metrics that they were being measured on.

Having formal structure around innovation is not a bad thing. Given the choice, the pressing issues of the day will almost always take priority over spending time on the innovative projects that don’t have an upcoming deadline. But we make time for things we care about.

A great example of carving out time for innovation is Living Dead Week in Purdue University’s IT office. Twice a year, they take a break from the day-to-day and let their staff spend a week working on a project of their choosing. The culmination is an internal competition where the winner receives bragging rights and a trophy to display on their desk until the next go-round.

Remember: Innovation doesn’t just happen

It’s one thing to say we want an innovative organization. It’s another entirely to put the structures and systems in place that will support it. Cultivating innovation long-term requires focusing on a higher level.

If you’re not sure where to start for your team or your organization, I can help.Schedule a call today and let’s talk about how we can make some changes to drive innovation in your organization.