If you’re responsible for bringing innovation to your company, there’s a good chance you’re also the one inhibiting it.
That’s because innovation can’t be someone’s job. No one person has enough experiences to inform something that will benefit many. Steve Jobs didn’t invent the mouse. He took Xerox’s idea and improved it. You don’t need to invent the mouse to be a successful chief innovation officer. You need to create an environment where everyone can share and build on ideas.
As a CEO, it’s my job to make space for innovation within our company so we can bring it to our clients. To do that, I have to fight against my own nature, then make my team feel safe to do the same. It takes layers of strategies, and a lot of techniques to hold us to them, but it’s worth it.
Ask the right question. Don’t provide the solution.
The best way to build a culture of any kind of sustainable innovation is to stop putting it entirely on your own shoulders. Innovation happens when people bounce ideas off of each other, not when one person bounces their ideas against a wall.
Sometimes, this means I have to block my impulse to be the first to speak in a meeting. If we’re brainstorming new ways forward, instead I’ll write my ideas down and wait. If someone else says the idea first, I can then lend my voice and authority to their ideas and build upon it. And if no one had a similar thought, I can then ask a question that might generate new ideas and concepts. When followed rigorously, you’ll be surprised at how often you ask questions in a meeting rather than shout ideas.
As chief innovation officer roles proliferate, we have to interrogate what that job entails. It should never be the lone genius shouting out whims and notions. Instead, reframe it as the chief facilitation officer. If you can be the person who gets everyone else’s best ideas out of them, you’ll be an order of magnitude more valuable.
Share your failures and celebrate others.
You can’t be the star of the show, but you definitely will be the person everyone looks to as they try to figure out all the unwritten rules of the company. The first and most important thing you can do is prove that it’s okay to fail by doing it yourself.
This is the easiest part of the job: Just mess up. Of course, then there’s the hardest part of the job: Own your mistakes and learn from them. Plenty of companies have embraced failure all the way into an early grave. Your job is to prove that failure won’t kill you, and show how it will make you stronger.
We are loud about our mistakes at our company — like, really loud. We’ve been shouting about them publicly (for example, in company blog posts) for the last five years. But we don’t just pat ourselves on the back for failing. We use each failure as a data point to calibrate off of before moving forward. Then we remember these failures. They are visible around the office in all kinds of ways. It shows that they’re okay, sure, but it also keeps us from making the same mistake twice.
Build a culture of experimentation.
Once you take away the fear that they’ll lose their jobs if things don’t go right, your team will start to throw out ideas more often. This is the time to build a culture of experimentation.
As the chief facilitation officer, it’s your job to play traffic cop to all of these ideas and help to prioritize the investments of the company. A great way to do that is to build a visual radar and backlog of the experiments the business will consider. We use a radar to track every idea that comes up by the phase it’s in:
• On hold• Assess• Experiment• Roll out
As ideas thrive and roll out or fail and fall off, we can decide which to move on to the next phase and visually show that to the entire company. The radar lets us capture the best ideas without trying them all at once and mucking up the results. It also keeps us from putting everything in an icebox for some moment in the future. The team can see real progress as ideas are tested and implemented. That keeps everyone motivated to come up with the next set to test.
Disrupt the communication patterns to hear from everyone.
With ideas coming in, your most important job is to make sure they’re coming in equally. To make sure you’re getting everyone’s best ideas, you have to be willing to jump in and change the communication patterns that can silence people. We use dozens of techniques to make our workplace as inclusive as possible and we still had to develop a method to help people contribute equally in meetings. It’s human nature, particularly around innovation. People get excited and steamroll their ideas right over other people’s efforts.
In the chief facilitation officer role, you can rebalance the conversation the same way you rebalance the experimentation schedule. Listen to who’s talking, encourage ideas from the people who aren’t contributing and turn down the volume on anyone who’s taking over. The ideas you get will be the better for it, as will your team.
Embrace the role of chief facilitation officer.
In a race to claim credit for innovation, we erase the real work that goes into it. Innovation is teamwork — literally, work a team must do together — not something that strikes a singularly brilliant mind. Act on that truth, and you can take responsibility for innovation by encouraging everyone to take part.