My friend’s forehead was creased, his consternation visible at the intersection of his caved-in eyebrows.
“I have to get out of this building to innovate. I can’t do it here. The technology, the dress code, the culture. It can’t get us where we need to go, and even if it could, it wouldn’t do it fast enough.”
My friend belonged to an organization respected as a progressive player in his market, yet here he was, feeling that the only way to continue innovating would be to pull a Steve Jobs and have his own Mac team moment, pulling out the A players and dragging them into another room where they could really innovate free from the corporate bureaucracy.
Sometimes that Steve Jobs moment is required, especially if you’ve been tasked with turning your organization around. But if you’re a part of a great organization that is doing great things but simply behind the curve when it comes to innovation, where do you start? Based on my experience, the innovation lie within the organization and is only dormant.
Here are two ways that my team has maintained a high energy culture through thick and thin in our world of software services for impact organizations.
Prerequisite: Leadership that gets it
Nothing resembling a culture of innovation will be possible without leadership that truly believes in the power of innovation. These two C’s spell certain death for any innovative initiatives: Conservative and Controlling. If leadership is risk-averse, the sometimes small amount of uncertainty required to support new things in fragile states will never materialize. If leadership, whether by ego or naïveté, cannot support ideas unless they originate from leadership, the best minds will never stick around the organization long enough to create a robust innovation ecosystem.
I myself have previously suffered from the desire to control and be the hero, but I’ve made great strides in the last year to lead from humility and empowerment, and seeing others take over areas that I used to champion is amazing. The willingness to know I still fall far short of the goal is I think part of this prerequisite.
Drawing Board: Give new ideas weekly time and space
At CauseLabs we meet for thirty minutes every Thursday at 9:30 for Drawing Board. It’s a simple meeting: bring new ideas, problems, and learning opportunities to your team and get rapid positive input. You’d be amazed how just thirty minutes a week devoted strictly to new thinking somehow covers so many initiatives that would otherwise come down from the top as rigid programs. We have people learning new programming languages, taking classes, making internal process improvements, and building rapid prototypes (many of which become products that ship or partnerships with other organizations).
All it takes is giving the floor to the team so they can share their ideas, rather than taking the floor to disseminate leadership’s ideas to the team.
Lab Day: Build what’s possible in a day.
Tech companies are known for their hacker cultures, pulling all-nighters and all-weekenders to get new products out the door. But an innovative culture need not be evidenced by the frequency of hackathons. It’s evidenced in the wayeverything is done.
Nevertheless, a hackathon is a beautiful jumpstart to innovation, and we’ve created our own flavor that even some of our clients are starting to try to do of their own accord.
Drawing Boards are a natural lead-in to Lab Days. Every week ideas get shared, refined. A scope of work is defined and sometimes people from small teams. Of Lab Day, we try to shut out the rest of the world other than those helping solve the problem at hand and build.
At the end of the day I’m always amazed at what the team produces. “I learned meteor.js.” “I took a project management class.” “I built a desktop app for time tracking that ties in with our ticket tracking system.”
The best part? Riding the wave of energy into the daily work at hand, and seeing some of the projects turn into much bigger initiatives that the whole team rallies around.
So, what’s in it for the bottom line?
Wrong question! However, it’s an understandable one. The hard truth is that to do it right, you’re not going to know what’s in it for the bottom line. Innovation is about identifying otherwise hidden advancements you just can’t get at if you put fear blinders on. So long as it’s all tied together by a meaningful vision, good things are going to happen.
I can say this: At CauseLabs, our best products, our best partnerships, and our best new internal tools have been catalyzed by Drawing Boards and Lab Days. Not to mention a strong reinforcement of culture.
That’s pretty good ROI.
This TEDx gives more about the story of innovation at CauseLabs: