Innovation Is Not a Democracy, and Other Thoughts

“We’re not a socialist environment, let’s be clear on that,” says Joe Gustafson, CEO and founder of Brainshark, a company that provides on-demand, rich-media solutions.  

I’m talking with him about innovation, because I think he must have some insight into the subject. Started in 1999, the VC-backed Brainshark last year grew 52 percent in sales and in the first half of this year the growth rate has been 84 percent, he tells me. They have a patent on their base application (which I’ll be writing about soon), they have three patents pending on applications that have grown out of the first (which essentially is a web-based application to create, share and manage online presentations that combine voice, text, graphics and business documents). In other words they are innovating.

“You must foster creativity and innovation and encourage people to make suggestions, but at the end of the day someone has to make tough decisions,” he says, when I ask how he balances creating a culture of innovation, which seems to rest on making everyone feel that they matter, that their ideas are welcomed, that they are free to experiment and innovate.  It all sounds very democratic.

Until the nos and unpopular decisions, which tend to put a kibosh on that misconception. That to me, seems to be the struggle: As a leader how do you create an environment that encourages an “anything is possible” flow of ideas and spirit of creativity on the one hand while balancing structure and top-down decision-making on the other.

“That’s part of leadership,” Gustafson says. Innovation is very much about creating the right conditions with the right leadership.

He has a number of ways he does this; here are a few.

Spend a lot of time and effort thinking about how to create a culture of innovation. For example, software-as-a-service, on which the company is based, is a very new model, Gustafson says. This is a whole different world from million-dollar contracts, he says, efficiency is key. He told me that’s especially true in the area of sales, he says, a demand which led to Brainshark assigning new sales, renewal and expansion to separate groups.

Believe that ideas can come from anywhere and from anyone. This is something I hear again and again from those focused on innovation. “Ideas come from everyone,” Gustafson tells me, and a lot of innovation comes from places you wouldn’t expect—wikis,  social networks, all parts of the company, etc.—you can get the best ideas from crazy places but you have to be open to that, you can’t  micromanage.” Which brings us to the next point.

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