To keep creative juices flowing, you must find ways to motivate your team when stagnant progress lowers morale. Some days, startup work definitely feels like a grind. In my time working in startups, I've seen my team try nearly ten different tactics to fix one issue.
To counter any potential burn out, here are my top tips for fostering an innovation-friendly culture.
Encourage a culture of constant learning.
As the cliche goes, everyone on your startup team will "wear many hats." Constant learning is built into this breadth of work. But learning should go beyond this. It's common practice for companies to provide employees with an education budget used for conferences, online certification courses, or bootcamp-style workshops. This stipend is an excellent choice -- if you have the budget available.
As a bootstrapped startup founder, trust me -- I know offering this can be tough. But external learning need not be expensive. Just this week, two of my marketers were able to attend a local marketing conference for free. Look into a low-cost subscription to Lynda.com, browse the courses offered on Coursera, or even order books on Amazon. Books are a fantastic resource for any startup. Have people highlight notable quotes, discuss ideas, and present learnings to the entire team. It's so worth it.
The most effective way I've found to build this into company culture is to include it as a performance goal. Have team members choose a topic of interest. And help them monitor their progress in weekly or monthly check-ins.
Making experimentation a priority.
This external learn will provide inspiration and help your team think about things differently. Help them use this in their day-to-day project work. To support this, my team has an "experiments" meeting every Friday morning.
Everyone goes around the table to talk about the different strategies they've tested and presents results. In the early years of the company, we all wore lab coats to this meeting for special effect.
Sometimes these experiments show statistically significant, positive results. Sometimes they're a total flop. To create a culture in which experimentation is a priority, you must allow for all experiment results. That means accepting both success and failure, which brings us to my next tip.
Allow room to make mistakes, and don't place blame.
Inevitably, some experiments will fail. In a healthy startup culture, unless someone has intentionally sabotaged a project (and hopefully, that won't happen, since you only hired great people), never place blame. By nature, experiments always involve a certain amount of risk taking.
In my experience, people become risk averse when they're afraid of a backlash against poor performance. This will be a huge roadblock to success. If something doesn't work as expected, acknowledge it for what it is, understand why it didn't work, and then move on.
Take notes on your process.
In full disclosure: this is tough to do. When you have so much else going on, it can be a chore to take time to document your processes. But this doesn't require spending hours taking painstaking notes.
You just need to record a rough description of what you hoped to achieve, what you did, the outcomes, and some conclusions. You need these notes for two primary reasons:
So you can avoid repeating an experiment and making the same mistakes.
To share knowledge with the rest of your team. As employees come and go, you don't want one person to be the holder of all knowledge.
Just because an experiment didn't work in 2015 doesn't mean it won't work in 2017. If the circumstances are different, it may be worth trying again. How will you know if the circumstances are different? By reviewing these notes!
I like to get my team into the habit of documenting this information in one place. For us, that's our company wiki. It has notes of experiments, products, and processes. It's been a fantastic resource for new hires so we can all be on the same page.
Schedule time for review and reflection.
You've just finished up a complex experiment. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn't. Whatever the outcome, dig into the data. Your team should understand why a project did or did not succeed. Once they know why, they must be able to communicate the details to others.
I like to go through this process in my weekly check-in meetings. I also encourage my team to tell the full story in our weekly experiments meeting. The benefits of explaining are twofold. They help the project leader to process what happened, and they help everyone on my team to learn from it.
Startup growth doesn't happen in a vacuum. Build an intentional culture of innovation and your team's creativity will bring you to new heights.