Council Post: Creating A Culture Of Continuous Innovation Without The Whiplash

Life in a startup can feel chaotic. Innovation is imperative because there is no “cash cow” that the company can rely on to coast. For many, this environment is energizing. There is certainly a selection bias – the people who opt for a startup versus those who go to Fortune 500 companies undoubtedly have different personality types and risk tolerances.

What happens when you begin to evolve from a startup into a company that has found product/market fit and is scaling, but still wants to keep its early culture of innovation and improvement? This is something that we at are navigating at present. I would like to share some of the challenges we are facing and the lessons we are learning in the process.

We have come a long way, from me working as a solopreneur from a desk in my bedroom to a thirty-person company headquartered in Midtown Atlanta with employees spread across the U.S. We have built products and services that resonate with customers globally and have entered our third consecutive year of at least 5x revenue growth.

But me being me, and us being us, we are not satisfied. We know we can do better — hence our constant push to innovate, to question our business and most successful products, and to understand if and how we can be even better. Having lived the entire journey, this is simply par for the course for me. For some of our longest-tenured team members who have been with me on this journey for nearly half a decade, these changes feel like home.

But there are many others — the majority of our team, in fact — who are not used to this environment. These team members came in not when we were a handful of people in a one-room office, but when we were five times that size in employees and nearly 100 times that size in revenue. For these people, changes can feel like someone is destroying the very home they thought they were moving into.

The easy answer would be to say that these people aren’t a fit for our culture. Easy, but unhelpful. To say that would be doing a disservice to the company. These are individuals we were excited to bring on, and I sincerely believed, and believe, they can have a positive impact. Each individual brings something to the table that we want and need, and to lose that would be wasteful.

I realized that their discomfort is not a failing on their part, but rather mine as a leader. There is a note above my desk that reads: “Other people aren’t the problem.” This is especially true at my company. If people are confused and scared by the changes we are making, then I have done a poor job of explaining the changes, what they are, why we are pursuing them and the implications for those involved. I have let them down.

This really struck home recently when I read Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. As a researcher who has spent decades studying shame, she identifies and understands some of our rawest human emotions. As she discusses in the book, and I am paraphrasing here, shame is seeing things change so much and so fast and not knowing if or how you can still contribute.

The innovation and improvements in our business are not what people have a hard time with. Rather, they have a hard time understanding if and how they can and will stay relevant given the changes occurring around them. If that’s the case, then the obvious answer is that I as a leader, and we as an organization, need to do a better job thinking through these very questions and then communicating, and overcommunicating, the answers to team members.

I am learning that the answer is not to slow our pace of innovation — that would be the surest path to irrelevance in this fast-changing world. The answer is to be more empathetic with my team members — to understand that they have not been on the same journey or had the same experiences. The answer is to look at things from their point of view and explain what is happening in a way that doesn’t just make sense to them, but that elicits the same kind of excitement in them as it does in me.

To do so, I have found the following to be helpful:

1. Start with vision: If everyone can understand the broader context and how it fits in with what they are already doing, it makes any individual change much easier to digest.

2. Be clear on your ‘why’: There is nothing more frustrating for smart people than to be told to do something differently without knowing the purpose behind the change. You hired your employees to think. Give them the opportunity to do so.

3. Avoid the ‘curse of knowledge’: This is when you assume that someone has the same background to understand the situation at hand as you do. Remember that there was a time the change was new to you as well. By the time you roll it out, you have had time to wrestle with it. Take yourself back to those early days. What did you not know then that helped you get to where you are now?

4. Put helpful constraints in place: Institute a change process that forces you to think things through, such as the resources available to your employees in navigating the change. Oftentimes these must be created. Doing so takes time, which slows things down, but remind yourself that you are ensuring your team members have the necessary tools to succeed.

As leaders, we have to keep changing and innovating while developing and growing our ability to communicate change. Your company, and everyone in it, deserves this and nothing less.