The Secret Sauce for Driving Innovation

Innovation is critical to business success yet does not come about by telling employees, "Be innovative!" or by asking employees, "What's the new thing? The new product? The new discovery?" Instead innovation is facilitated by creating an environment that allows employees to imagine, to wrestle, to explore and to iterate. It results from providing opportunities to link nascent thoughts and ideas, and to stitch them together with further exploration and experimentation.

At a provocative panel discussion The New CEO: Always Learning and Setting the Tone for Innovation on Day One, three women CEOs of bio-technology start-ups in the Boston area shared their thoughts on catalyzing innovative thinking in their organizations. WEST, a professional association aimed at advancing Women in the Enterprise of Science & Technology culminated a year's focus on Driving a Culture of Innovation by hosting Katrine Bosley of Editas Medicine, Amy Schulman of Arsia Therapeutics and Nancy Simonian of Syros Pharmaceuticals. Key take-aways from the conversation describe strategies that collectively engender the secret sauce for driving innovation.

Culture is job #1 for leaders - Culture was described as the single most important component of any failed - or successful - business and the top job of the CEO. The clear message was that culture happens, whether or not leaders focus on it, so it's critical to put active energy into shaping the desired culture rather than having the default fill in the gaps. Leaders bring people together around a core set of ideas and ask foundational questions such as:

  • What motivates us as an organization? Why are we here?
  • What are our core values? What do we stand for?
  • Who are we striving to serve?

Culture is not static but rather evolves through time and must be revisited, especially as an organization grows. With increasing size organizations frequently require greater formality in how work is accomplished. Systems and practices are implemented to support greater efficiency and consistency.

Failure is a key part of success - Being innovative requires employees to take risks. By definition innovation equates with risk because innovative ideas do not follow the typical path. In bio-technology the reality is most ideas do indeed fail, at least as originally envisioned, but those failures are not the end but as often the seed for a next step and a new beginning. During the discussion, Amy Schulman of Arsia Therapeutics asked:

As a leader, do you ennoble or criticize failure?

It turns out the answer to the question greatly influences how employees experience the work culture and their propensity to think and act creatively. Redefining success and failure is part of the equation so that a well-designed experiment with a clear outcome is a success even if the results are not as hoped.

Innovation is the promise of something - Leaders are charged with answering the question, "What story do we want to tell?" The CEOs powerfully described the shift from communicating information and data about the current state and what is needed to painting a compelling picture of what can be. At its heart innovation is about stretching our thinking and combining things that may be familiar in new and unexpected ways. The ability to communicate that what if scenario is a critical step in helping to manifest it. The role of a leader is to translate what she believes and to deliver that message in a compelling way that inspires others.

Creating safety is important - When employees feel evaluated, they are far less likely to bring their best selves to work. For most of us, it requires a lot of work to not be who we are and the effort employees spend continually self-censoring saps their energy for making their fullest contribution. Women leaders indicated they've found people relate more to their struggles, failures and humiliations than their successes. This honest sharing helps employees to feel more comfortable sharing their challenges. Leaders play a pivotal role in creating a safe culture by modeling authenticity and candor.

Reaching out and listening are critical - One way to create safety is by being the leader who genuinely wants to hear it all - the good and the bad - and who celebrates rather than marginalizes those who surface the uncomfortable stuff. Feedback, while sometimes hard to hear, is a gift in disguise and helps leaders to understand the work culture in actual practice. It is vital for leaders to reach out and seek feedback rather than assuming it will flow her way. Given the strong extroversion of American business culture, it is important to purposefully create space for introverts and those less comfortable or slower to respond in meetings and conversations. Leaders model inclusion by listening deeply, building on ideas, and rewarding employees for their input. According to research, this mosaic of ideas drawn from diverse perspectives leads to more creative, innovative outcomes.

Broadly sharing credit - The complexity of the work world today nearly ensures that what gets accomplished is nearly always the result of many hands. One way to engender innovation is by broadly sharing the credit. The words of a bio-tech leader on the panel reminded us, "Success has 1000 mothers" and in the spirit of gender equity I'd add, fathers too!