'For innovative thinking, most fundamental part is trust' 'For innovative thinking, most fundamental part is trust'
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‘For innovative thinking, most fundamental part is trust’

‘For innovative thinking, most fundamental part is trust’

Why fostering a culture of innovation is the best strategy for the future of your business?

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Nurcin Erdogan Loffler

One Friday afternoon in May 2002, Larry Page was playing around on the Google site, typing in search terms and seeing what sort of results and ads he’d get back. He was dissatisfied with what he saw. He would type in a search term, and while Google returned lots of relevant organic results, some of the advertising was utterly irrelevant to the search.

Think about it, if you were the founder of the shining internet startup, what would you do?  Let’s picture what would happen in a typical business setting:

The CEO, seeing a bad product, would call the person in charge of the product. In most cases, there might have been consequences for such an error, likely another – so called “more capable” person would be assigned to oversee the project.

There would be several meetings to discuss the problem, review potential solutions and decide on a course of action. Then, after a fair amount of time and long internal discussions, maybe even politics about whose fault was this and what were the reasons for the problem, there might be an action plan to address the problem. Several weeks, if not months would pass before seeing anything new happening on the identified problem.

Fair enough, seems like a realistic scenario, isn’t it? Spoiler alert, this isn’t what Larry Page did. Larry Page printed the pages, marked the irrelevant ad results and on top, in big bold letters, he wrote: “These ads suck.” Then he walked into the office kitchen and posted the page where everyone could see it. Was it an arrogant leadership move to publicly humiliate the ones who made the error? Some might think so, but in reality what happened next gives lots of insights on the culture of innovation in action.

On Monday morning, a group of engineers, who were not related to the advertising development department, sent an email with a link to a new prototype of the solution they created over the weekend, which by the way, turned out to become the ‘brain’ powering  how Google ads work to this day.

Fast forward 20 years, in 2022 all business leaders agree that innovation is a crucial success factor, and they are very much responsible for facilitating ongoing innovation – regardless of their industry. Innovation is no longer a concept for tech-driven companies but an industry and size agnostic priority. Most of the time, I observe a sense of urgency and a bit of panic when discussing innovation with leaders. They are worried they might be missing out, yet they don’t know how to make sure they can bring this priority to life. There always seems to be an invisible roadblock.

Here are my three strategic recommendations that drive a culture which enables innovation:

Failure-friendly, trust-based climate

For innovative thinking to occur, the most fundamental part is a climate of trust that allows everyone to feel safe to be vulnerable. Don’t forget that innovation and creativity require a lot of space for vulnerability and acceptance of failure.

If as a leader, you cannot provide that climate, don’t expect anyone of your employees to come up with innovative solutions. In fear cultures, there is no space for innovation.

Purpose, belonging and autonomy

The most common overlooked fact about accountability is the experience of the accountable people.  They are the people who find meaning and personal fulfillment in their work. This is exactly why, a group of engineers who were not officially related to the problem Larry Page raised, decided to be accountable for it. Their mindset: If it’s a “Google” problem, then it’s “our” problem. When a person is proud to be a part of that company, see the bigger picture and believes that they belong in the vision of the company on a personal level, the experience and the interpretation of challenges change. This enables them to be autonomous to go the extra mile and think differently. But remember, only empowered people will have the courage and the confidence to think differently.

Fall in love with questions more than answers 

In the traditional business settings where there is scarcity of innovation, people are hired to give answers, they are expected to know the solutions to problems.  Innovation, on the contrary, is nourished by problems and questions.  We need to be brave enough to spot unsolved problems, areas of improvements and ask  stimulating, interesting questions about them which you don’t have the answers to, yet.

I think the Google case study shows why culture is so important. It determines the future of a company. Culture is the lens you see your business and your people through as a leader and this reflects as the narrative of the organisation and definitely has a huge impact on the results, probably much more than the leaders acknowledge.

In a nutshell, strong brand cultures that represent what the brand stands for, everybody knows where they want to go and do what they need to get there. They belong and are not afraid to take action by using their judgement. In fear cultures, people just do what they’re told. They perform tasks, follow the rules and try not to color outside the lines. There’s no purpose to be passionate about.

When Larry Page posted that paper in the kitchen, he knew the culture at Google would not start gossiping, but rather go to work. The real question is, what will your culture do when there is a big problem?

Nurcin Erdogan Loffler, partner, Toughlove Advisors

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