An Unexpected Approach To Creating A Culture Of Innovation

How To Create A Culture Of Innovation
Katherine Canales/SweetRush
Summary: The world's leading innovation teams and companies have mastered the practice of co-creation: collaboratively adding value amongst multiple stakeholders. In this article, discover the important inner and outer work necessary to build a culture of innovation and the ability to co-create.

How To Create A Culture Of Innovation

Imagine being asked to co-create solutions the world has never seen before. It sounds exciting—but also incredibly daunting. Co-creation is the practice of collaboratively creating value amongst multiple stakeholders, and a practice used among most leading innovation teams and companies these days.

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Building A Culture Of Innovation Means Learning To Truly Co-create

I recently coached a leading Fortune 500 tech innovation team. Their team is amazing: truly a brilliant group of experts. Individually, I know they could iterate on whatever tech widget or AI gadget, but they are asked to go beyond that. They are asked to co-create with their team and clients. That means listening, thinking in divergent ways, integrating seemingly disparate ideas, and creating prototypes. Problem is, most of them—let’s be honest: most of us—aren’t trained in how to co-create with others. Remember team projects in school? They were usually a flurry of ideas followed by a couple of people—likely including you if you’re reading this article—driving the project. This method of co-creation just won’t fly. The group’s Executive Vice President (EVP) is a true visionary. She knows that to get where they need to go, they can’t do what they’ve always done. She is educating and pushing them to up-level around what has traditionally been called soft skills. These are not mushy, feel-good, soft-and-fuzzy sharing sessions; these are critical to their ability to execute on their mission, and she calls them out hard when they aren’t practicing these skills.

Google’s Highest-Performing Teams: Psychological Safety

In a similar inquiry around innovation and performance, Google conducted a study to identify common traits among their highest-performing teams. After conducting wide-range surveys and interviews for years, they were unable to identify commonalities. Finally, they decided to study 100 teams deeply over one year. Google recorded their meetings and tracked their communications. What they found as a key differentiator was that the teams had what Harvard psychologist Amy Edmundson called “psychological safety”. Google defines psychological safety as when “team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other” [1]. Essentially, it comes down to trust. While ropes courses and meditation can create some conditions for trust, many teams have found that those activities don’t always translate to feeling safe in team meetings—wherein ideas, roles, and projects can feel charged and at stake.

5 Key Areas To Establish Psychological Safety And Build A Culture Of Innovation

To establish the psychological safety needed to effectively co-create, we focused on the following 5 key areas with the tech innovation team over the last year:

1. Personal Mastery

The phrase “know thyself” has been found inscribed at ancient sites in the Middle East. Amazing how the person we know most intimately (our own self) can also be elusive and mercurial. As a leader today, your ability to thrive requires more than the original ideas of emotional intelligence; it necessitates being an expert on yourself. If you pride yourself on rational decision-making, and evidence-based consideration, that might be true at certain choice points, but it turns out people mostly make decisions emotionally [3]. This means that it’s critical to know our history, our biases, and our emotional triggers. The innovation team’s EVP has said she believes that self-awareness is the key differentiator her team members need. Here are approaches and concepts related to personal mastery that we’ve worked on with the innovation team:

Family History

Reflect on your parents’ and grandparents’ sense of purpose or lack of it, and whether it has impacted your own sense of purpose in life. You can take this a step further by reflecting on your family dynamics during good times and challenges. What did you look like on a good day? What role did you play during challenging times in your family? What are the things that your family did or does that irritate you?

Personal Purpose And Values

Reflect on your own personal purpose. What do you want your legacy to be? What values are most important to you? Select your top three to five values and write beliefs that you have about them. Write down ways that you commit to living those values more fully at work and at home for the next three months. It’s helpful to have a check-in buddy to reflect on whether you lived these values and actions, or to think about whether there were other values that were more important to you. Knowing your values and sharing them with others creates greater coherence (meaning you walk your talk) and garners trust from others.

Self-Connection Checkpoints

When tigers were chasing us in ancient times, it served us to become singularly focused to fight, flight, or freeze. When knowledge workers and leaders have a triggered response, we cannot access our full knowledge and experience; we lose our mental “peripheral vision”. Periodically throughout the day, take a moment to assess your state of mind and body. Many of us were taught to always maintain a professional veneer and not complicate work with our feelings. Some of us don’t sense feeling or emotional triggers, but triggers take different forms. Some checkpoints to sense whether we are in a triggered state are noticing our:

  • Emotions
  • Physical sensations (like tightness in your throat or a burning forehead)
  • Thoughts (are you repeatedly having judgmental thoughts about yourself or others?)
  • Cognitive state

The latter is a common one with executives I’ve worked with, who say they have no thoughts or feelings after something stressful has occurred. This form of dissociation is supported, even encouraged, in many corporate settings; however, others can sense the stress and dissociation. Without more information, it can cause team members to feel unsafe. Another cognitive state is people getting confused when stressed. They’ll start asking repetitive questions, and all they share is being confused by what’s being said.


When we are in a triggered state, it’s first important to return to our bodies and breath: go for a walk. Look at pictures of your favorite people, animal, or place. Talk to someone you feel safe with. At the very least, feel your feet on the ground and focus on your breath. Remember that responding while triggered likely means you won’t have access to your full wisdom. If you need to respond, let others know you are still processing. Ask for more time. Reflect on why you had that reaction and whether something important to you was being threatened. Find a time to circle back to the other person(s) at a time when you can brainstorm a more creative solution that meets all of the needs.

Balance And Rejuvenation

We’ve all heard that we need to manage our energy, take breaks, and get exercise in order to be our best at work. A study by Yale University found that one in five U.S. workers feels both highly engaged at work and a high level of burnout [4]. So, some of your highest-performing team members could be burning the candle at both ends. The demands within most workplaces are increasing and at faster rates. It’s up to individual team members to protect their time to take care of themselves; they need to be told and encouraged to schedule a time for exercise and other activities that rejuvenate their energy. As a leader, you need to honor their schedules, and when you do need to make a request for someone to give up personal time, encourage them to reschedule that activity. One of the benchmarks we used with the innovation team is an Energy Audit, created by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy of The Energy Project. Each team member takes the audit, compares scores to their last audit, and renews commitments to take care of themselves.

2. Deep Listening And Generative Dialogue

Remember as a child when some snarky adult would say, “You were given two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listen more than you talk”? But as experts, we’re rewarded for having answers and providing solutions. With the pressures of corporate demands, we feel the burden to produce and to keep things moving as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, among the major losses of existing like this is missing opportunities to deepen our work, to discover possibilities beyond our own cranium, and to serve our customers and clients in the ways that they truly need. It sounds like it would be easy to practice good listening skills, but it’s a muscle that’s atrophied in our society. (Who knows: perhaps the snarky adult had some wisdom after all.) We don’t practice it, so we don’t always remember how to do it. Plus, our ability to think and respond quickly tends to be our go-to in conversation, so we’re working against our habits. With the innovation team, we had them call stakeholders, one on one, to conduct deep listening interviews to learn more about that stakeholder than they’d previously known. In the process, they discovered challenges, needs, and personal connections they hadn’t before in their more tactical conversations.

Here are some tips for practising deep listening:

Prepare Yourself For The Conversation

The best preparation is being open—all roads lead back to knowing thyself! If you are preoccupied, you cannot truly listen to another person. So, find ways to clear your mind and focus on something you enjoy before the meeting.

Focus On The Other Person

Sounds obvious, right? It’s hard, though, when you really try to do it. Other thoughts will arise. But don’t get down on yourself when you notice your mind has wandered—it’s a practice. Bring your focus back on the person and really listen to what they’re saying. Don’t interrupt. Become comfortable with some silence. Often, people are thinking during brief pauses. What they say next very likely could be something new that they don’t say every day.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

Ask questions that can’t be answered with a yes or a no. Ask about their biggest wins, what they’re working on, what their biggest challenge is, and what they hope to accomplish in the next six months to a year. After they share, you can say, “Tell me more about that”, “How was that for you?”, and “How would you like for it to turn out?”.

Avoid Nongenerative Responses

There are some ways of responding that can cause the conversation to slow down or to halt altogether. These ways of communicating can be helpful and interesting if someone is asking you for this kind of feedback, but if you are trying to learn more about your customer or stakeholder, you may want to use them sparingly. These include:

  • Giving advice
  • Asking rapid-fire detailed questions like the Spanish Inquisition
  • Storytelling and one-upping
  • Sympathizing in a pitying way
  • Educating them on facts related to what they’re sharing.
  • Remember to keep asking great open-ended questions.

Send A Follow-Up

Send an authentic thank-you email that includes any big takeaways from the conversation and any action items.

3. Ease With Ambiguity And Changing Dynamics

Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering, said, “The 21st century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate of progress; organizations have to be able to redefine themselves at a faster and faster pace” [5]. I think we all need to hold on to our hats and be ready for the winds of change. Organizations are restructuring. Multinational corporations are shifting to agile, iterative teams that are customer-obsessed. We need individuals who can roll with the changes while holding a firm gaze on the vision. You need to be able to quickly realign priorities with those of the people around you. Have you ever seen a murmuration of starlings [2]? These large flocks of small birds fly in undulating formation without crashing into one another. For a long time, scientists didn’t know how they did that, but they have now discovered that starlings have a hyper sense of the six birds directly around them. Teams focused on innovation need team members who can pivot and roll without the additional stress of worrying about everything being perfectly organized, or being the way it’s always been.

4. Growth Mindset

Similarly, we need team members who are continually learning and growing. Just because something fails, it doesn’t mean you are a failure. It means that it was a learning opportunity—if you focus on learning and growing. According to Mindset Works, a global leader in growth mindset development, “Over 30 years ago, Stanford University’s Professor Carol Dweck and her colleagues became interested in students' attitudes about failure. They noticed that some students rebounded while other students seemed devastated by even the smallest setbacks. After studying the behavior of thousands of children, Dr. Dweck coined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence. When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement [6]”. Turns out, the same goes for adults. Those with a growth mindset continue to thrive.

5. Team Culture

We are trained to focus on “the what” of business: what we are producing, the performance metrics, the numbers, and tangible outputs. A sorely neglected side is the “how” of business: how we get things done, how we treat one another, and how we feel about our work. Fortunately, there are now many metrics to measure the health of team culture. So, create a baseline and start a conversation about your team values, how you want to interact, and where you are currently stuck. Create a plan to improve your team culture, strengthening the positive attributes and finding ways to work better together. Your team culture and strategy should go hand in hand. Think about what’s important to the individuals. Talk about your personal values. Craft the team culture that is right for your unique team. Celebrate in the ways that feel good to you. Remember to take time to connect. Every interaction and every policy and procedure are a reflection of your culture. Have the hard conversations if it’s not in alignment with your team culture. The more openly you share, the more psychological safety you build.

Inner + Outer Work = Culture Of Innovation

Innovation requires the vision of leaders, smart experts, and good processes, like design thinking and Theory U. The concepts and practices shared here are the equally important inner work needed to build a culture of innovation.  Over the last year that I’ve been working with the tech innovation team, I have seen them shift from talking at one another in order to prove points, to sitting side by side, keeping their focus on their challenges, and finding collaborative solutions forward. It’s not always easy, but they have a dedication to learn, grow, and develop, individually and together. The future will be co-created. Developing these competencies and capacities will enable you to create and discover amazing things.

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[1] Identify dynamics of effective teams / What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team

[2] Flight of the Starlings: Watch This Eerie but Beautiful Phenomenon

[3] The Irrational Consumer: Why Economics Is Dead Wrong About How We Make Choices

[4] US firms aim to fight workplace stress amid rise of employee burnout

[5] Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering, Google (via Thank You for Being Late by Thomas L. Friedman)

[6] Decades of Scientific Research that Started a Growth Mindset Revolution / The power of believing that you can improve

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