The vast majority of business leaders are looking for innovation in all the wrong places.
In the 20th century, a CEO could command his employees to, ‘produce 10 times as many widgets as you did last month,’ in the same way that a general might have told a soldier to, ‘Take that hill.’ You could measure such progress easily.
But today’s organizational goals—engagement, innovation, collaboration—cannot be achieved via dictate or commandment. Imagine asking two employees to go into a room and not to come out until they have learned to communicate with each other effectively, or telling one employee, ‘I’ll give you an extra $5,000 if you come up with our industry’s next great idea by Friday.’
The innovation most companies desire and need today stems from a deep foundation of trust in employees and business partners. Fortunately, in both the past and present, forward-thinking companies have offered examples we can follow to build this kind of trust.
In the 1950s, when PanAm hired Boeing Aviation to design a new kind of passenger jet, the airplane manufacturer made a rather unorthodox move. Instead of tightly controlling information about its latest designs, Boeing invited PanAm representatives to Seattle headquarters to oversee the plane’s development. Boeing took into account PanAm’s insights, critiques, and suggestions. Other companies might have carefully guarded their blueprints out of fear they would slip over to the competition. But Boeing extended its trust to PanAm and its employees, confident that the airline would not leak any information and that, with PanAm’s help, the team could complete the new aircraft before the competition caught up. The decision paid off. The Boeing 747 was completed in 16 months, a feat that has never been matched in aviation engineering. The Boeing 787, by comparison, took more than eight years to develop.
Adobe is another example. The software firm has put trust in its employees to independently pursue new product ideas. The company launched its Kickbox program in 2013 based on the notion that ‘all ideas start out as bad ideas.’ Adobe Kickbox offers any employee who expresses interest in a product incubator a red box consisting of a $1,000 prepaid credit card, candy bars, and a gift card for Starbucks. Armed with the capital to test their idea, the caffeine to pursue it, and the faith and trust of their employer, Kickbox participants have reported increased levels of engagement and happiness on the job, as highlighted in an article in Harvard Business Review. They also work harder, as they balance their original workload with their new pet project. Since the program’s launch, several projects to develop future Adobe products are underway.
Similarly, Google’s previous 20% time program—which allowed Googlers to devote one-fifth of their work week to pursue independent projects—resulted in some of the company’s most successful products, including Gmail and Google Maps.
By giving employees the freedom and resources to test new ideas, leaders can unlock a new world of potential innovation. Such calculated, responsible risk-taking can yield powerful, new products and services and, in turn, improved business performance.
So, how can companies begin to create a high-trust environment? Make no mistake, shaping an organization’s character, or its culture, involves hard work that requires time and patience. And building trust requires significantly more effort than inviting your employees to participate in a short-term program or weekend workshop. It involves a serious, intentional, and ongoing commitment to change; a journey toward building empathy and understanding instead of settling for tolerance; a decision to operate in the world based on your deepest held values; and a willingness to risk initial disappointment and setbacks in an effort to forge meaningful, powerful relationships. This is no small endeavor. Once you make this commitment, it will inform and infuse every subsequent decision you make.
Embarking in this direction clears a path for leaders and their companies to introduce policies that give their employees freedom from rigid, outdated policies and hierarchical structures, and grants them the freedom to embrace practices that engender trust, to embrace a culture where it’s safe to be vulnerable, and to generate a working environment based on sustainable values.
When Bill Gates designed the Windows operating system, he created an environment that allowed all of his applications to work together efficiently. In a business world that’s been reshaped by technology, today’s “Killer Apps” are now our people and their uniquely human capacity to think and feel and imagine. An efficient human operating system runs on trust. In such a system, workers are confident that they are valued and they can bring genuine passion and enthusiasm to their jobs; it’s a benefit that can be both felt and measured.