There's a viral video that makes it's way around this time of year in which Star Trek's Captain Picard repeats his trademark command, "Make it so." (A play on the holiday jingle "Make it Snow.")
We'd all like to lead like Picard, but in the real world it's not that easy, especially when it comes to innovation. Still, I've heard founders repeatedly say, "I want to build a culture of innovation. Can you come in next week and put one in place?" Inevitably that points to a classic problem that I call "The Founder's Dilemma."
Here's how it works.
The Founder's Dilemma
You're an entrepreneur. Innovation is what you do. It's who you are. It's why your business exists. So, naturally, you end up being the one who comes up with the really good ideas. After all, it is your business. Good luck with that! Having built three successful businesses, and worked with hundreds of others, one thing about innovation has become clear; an innovation culture may stem from the founder but to scale it has to be sustained throughout the organization. Yet, often it's the founder's zeal for innovation that acts as its greatest barrier.
I recall one founder I worked with who was very concerned that his company was not innovative enough. He built the company from an early innovation, proudly displayed in his office, a cosmetics makeup press that was fashioned out of a small hydraulic car jack! Now he wanted to jump start innovation and wondered why his company wasn't as innovative as he'd like. I interviewed 30 people across the company. Everyone told me the same thing, "The founder is the innovator. His ideas built this company--he's brilliant and I have enormous respect for him. I don't want to let him down with a bad idea. I just do my job really well." It didn't take long to figure out that just about everyone was far more concerned about stepping into the large shadow cast by the founder than they were about being innovative. There goes your culture of innovation!
Letting go of Innovation
Cultures need rituals and a process to reinforce innovation. They need leaders who back off and pass innovation onto others, and then recognize them when they succeed and support them when they fail at something worth trying. Otherwise people suffer from the same fear of failure that the founder I just mentioned had unwittingly created.
Here's the reality of being a great innovator; you have to let go of the innovation baton and pass it on to others. It's what the quintessential innovator, Steve Jobs, did with Tony Fadell and the iPod. Be courageous, challenge people to come up with the next idea--incremental or great, it doesn't matter. What does matter is signaling clearly that innovation can come from anyone and then put in place and nurture a culture to make it so!
4 Ways Founders Create (or Crush) a Culture of Innovation
- Get Culturally Creative--Think in terms of what's valuable in your culture. In my second company I had a policy that no office, even my own, would have a door. Why? I wanted to signal that in our culture everyone had the license and the responsibility to work in interrupt mode. The result was that ideas flowed freely, constantly, unfettered. Close the door to collaboration and crush innovation.
- Set the tone. You are a role model for innovation but you cannot be its only source. Advertise the success of others and their ideas. Talk about how the seeds of innovation are taking root throughout the company. Be sure to applaud and recognize innovations, no matter how small. Ignore recognition and crush innovation.
- Establish a company-wide budget for new ideas. This isn't an R& D budget. Instead it's for any idea that is worth exploring. It's a hedge bet against outside innovation. Every now and then one idea will fly out of the park. It only takes a few of those to illustrate how innovation is part of your culture. Don't set aside budget and crush innovation.
- Share the story of innovation with new employees. Make sure the story is not a story about YOU and the one great idea that launched your business. Instead make it a story about the culture of innovation and the many people who sustains it. Make the story just about you and crush innovation.