How Organizational Culture Helps W.L. Gore & Associates Drive Innovation
At Great Place to Work®, we regularly work with companies who believe that management’s role is to get out of the way of letting employees do great work. Within any organizational structure or work environment, employees share the desire to use their talents and abilities to help meet organizational goals, finding the support to do this from colleagues, and all while keeping engaged in their day to day work.
This concept is great in theory but in practice how does this actually happen? The key is a high-level of trust in management and among employees, which opens the lock of a strong culture of innovation and collaboration. In her session, “Creating Micro-Environments for Innovators at W.L. Gore & Associates” at the 2012 Great Place to Work Conference, Dr. Debra France shared how this Best Company to Work For creates an organizational culture that supports employees both as individuals and teams. That this 50 year-old company is highly regarded for their cutting edge and ubiquitous innovations, like Gore-tex fabrics, along with a myriad other industrial, medical, and electronic applications, is a testament to W.L.Gore’s success as an innovator.
In 2007, Gore set out to develop a deeper understanding of how they create a culture of innovation. An internal survey revealed that certain conditions must be present in order to allow associates to thrive and innovation to occur. The first key finding is that among all the shared characteristics of associates at Gore, the number one characteristic is their motivation for producing value while being challenged, having fun and being recognized for the work. The research clearly revealed that their strong organizational culture was a key driver in producing an environment where innovation could thrive.
W.L.Gore & Associates supports innovation by understanding the role of the company’s leaders in facilitating and supporting the culture. Dr. France focuses on four ways that Gore creates and maintains a culture of innovation:
- Sponsorship – Sharing accountability for associate success.
As an alternative to managers, associates have ‘sponsors’ who formally commit to the success of an associate, emphasizing the way leadership development is also organically grown at Gore. This is especially important in the onboarding process, where culture is modeled and instilled from sponsor to associate. For new hires, the sponsor's role includes coaching the associate on the company’s culture and unique organizational structure (fundamental principles, how to get things done, etc.), providing guidance on development and learning opportunities, providing feedback, and ensuring that associate contributions are recognized in the compensation process. More than just a manager, sponsors will often go out of their way to ensure that associates have access to the opportunities and experts that will feed their individual goals and align their individual talents with business goals.
- Trust – Freedom from micromanagement
When employees make their own commitments, and those commitments are grounded in company values, a stronger, more motivated and self-sustaining workforce results. At Gore, this attitude is reflected in their organizational structure, one that is matrixed and flat with minimal hierarchy, vividly represented by the name of the company, where associates are embraced within its very name. The Trust Index © Survey statement “Management trusts people to do a good job without watching over their shoulders” has one of the highest percentages of positive responses within the dimension of Credibility. Employees are empowered to find the best way to get things done, enabling the ability and flexibility to be creative.
- Shared Decision-Making
Even though associates are self-motivated and largely self-managed, they never lose site of the larger organizational goals. For example, transparent decision-making and an inclusive approach, invites teams to make the best decisions for the business. Even when the decision means stopping a project, it is not the morale-buster it might otherwise be due to the shared understanding of the best interests of the larger organization.
- Balancing Working Polarities to Drive Innovation
At Gore, tension is not avoided but seen as a critical component to supporting creativity. In order to maintain creativity, companies need to embrace both generativity and discipline, near-term performance with long term possibilities, innovation and productivity. What is ultimately created at Gore is a yin-yang balance, a perfect tension that challenges employees to think beyond the box while encouraging productivity through their core competencies. Great lengths are explored to create a disciplined approach to innovation at Gore.
W.L. Gore and Associates’ focus on sustaining a workplace culture where employees are free to think and create, while fostering an environment of collaboration and trust, have made Gore a noteworthy innovator, as much recognized for the originality of their work environment, as for their inventions.
As a Product Delivery Manager, Lizelle Festejo manages employee survey assessments, production of reports and services and customer support for companies applying to the Best Companies lists.
Related Articles and Blogs:
- The Three Cs for Sustaining a Culture of Innovation
- Fail Fast, Fail Frequently: Lessons from Enabling Innovation
- Reflecting on Steve Jobs and Innovation in the Workplace
- Leaving Ideas on the Table