Standard strategies for innovation don’t go deep enough to foster breakthroughs and prevent fiascos
“Apple Music is a nightmare and I'm done with it," wrote one self-described Apple lover when the company released its music application in 2015. “Wish I wasn’t forced into updating, I preferred the old app,” wrote a user about Wells Fargo’s iOs app. Both tools have improved, but after some clear rockiness.
You can bet that inside these companies there were people who knew about and predicted the missteps, perhaps talking in hushed tones around the water cooler. Why don’t these savvy employees prevent innovation problems?
In a word, trust. At Great Place to Work we focus on helping companies build high-trust cultures. Trust is an essential ingredient to innovation, and so companies with an interest in innovation – which is just about all companies – ought to look at trust as a precondition to innovation or a powerful remedy when expectations of innovation are not met.
Trust does work. In the mid-1980s at manufacturer W.L. Gore & Associates a project team working on new polymer coatings had grown to 60 people. With no guarantee of job security the team members recommended that the effort be shut down; it simply was not promising enough. The team put the company first. They trusted the company had their backs. And it did. The CEO himself, Bob Gore, sent all the team members a letter thanking them for trying and committing to get them all jobs elsewhere in the company … and he did.
There are two major innovation failures: backward innovation, when the new product is actually a regression; and late innovation, when a new product is tardy to market or never arrives at all. Both types of flops have roots in low trust. Backward innovation stems from the reluctance to challenge ideas that some know are just flat-out bad. Late or absent innovation stems from an excessive fear of failure or excessive concern for personal credit.
These anti-innovative behaviors are rooted in low trust, for which the standard approaches to innovation are no help. These approaches operate above the water-line in the realm of programs, tactics, incentives, training, and the like. They include a familiar cast of characters: executive declarations, innovation targets, innovation departments, employee training in creativity or design thinking, financial incentives, crowdsourcing and competitions.
These are all reasonable and widely used approaches that might work but will be ineffective without sufficient trust. Low trust is a trump card that will stifle all the good intentions and strategies for innovation.
There are six types of trust important to innovation:
- Trust in Self – leaders can encourage individuals across to company to listen to their own gut feelings and intuition. Individual confidence is the root of innovation.
- Trust in Others - interpersonal trust allows people to share ideas and get candid feedback early.
- Trust in the Organization – leaders must demonstrate that the organization will support innovators, and not just with resources. Success is easy, but how the organization deals with cases of good risks with bad outcomes is much more telling.
- Trust in the Process – Any creative effort has high and lows, and in those low moments believing the process will get you through is critical.
- Trust in the Customer – leaders must view their customers as innovative and bold, believing they will embrace great new products and services.
- Trust in a Higher Purpose – great innovation is often rooted in something grand (impact on society) or some aesthetic ideal (beauty, elegance) – something more than financial gain.
In short, put your trust in trust. It will help you foster more breakthroughs at your organization. And, as importantly, it will help you avoid innovation fails.
Jonathan Becker and Ed Frauenheim are partner and director of research and content, respectively, at Great Place to Work.