Innovation Is Not a Democracy, and Other Thoughts

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Communicate your vision, then give employees space to create. Gustafson says he focuses on providing vision, direction, and resources, then lets people throughout company at all levels use creativity to solve problems. “I try to make sure the vision is communicated well and frequently and is clearly understood in all areas of the company,” he says. “From there you just sort of let people go, you must empower them to act on the vision and try out new things, which is not an easy thing to do.”

What he’s saying is that ideas need space to grow and bloom. This is really important I think, it’s hard to innovate and create when you feel like someone is looking over your shoulder. Probably everyone understands this when they think of wanting their own freedom to create; giving that space to others, for many, can be a bit more challenging.

View mistakes as learning tools. “Some things won’t work,” he says, “If it doesn’t work we hunker down and try to fix it.” This point, like the second, seems to be a defining characteristic of the innovative mindset. Earlier this year at the Cutter Consortium Summit, I watched a film by Robert Austin, Cutter fellow and Harvard Business School professor, which profiled a number of innovators.

One striking characteristic of each was the way he or she looked at failure. Of course, nobody wants to fail, but what was so interesting to me is that each interviewee (top-notch artists, engineers, designers and such) resolutely refused to even allow the word fail into his or her vocabulary. The interviewer would ask questions like “How did it feel when such and such project failed?” or “What do you do when a project fails?” Faced with a question that contained this foreign word, failure, you could see interviewees literally shake off the word, a nonverbal, “No I’m not letting your view of it stick to me.” Instead, they would answer the sentence starting with “I learned…” followed by a “Now I know that…” or “Now I know to try…”

I think of this when speaking with Gustafson. “It’s OK to make a mistake and fail,” he says. “I’d rather have employees try and make a mistake than not try at all.” I like that. Even hearing those words helps my shoulders lower a bit, allows me to breathe, and I can see how that mindset would be so freeing, instilling confidence and self-esteem in employees, rather than fear, timidity or self-doubt that can accompany environments that (for whatever reason) pulse with high-stakes and repercussion.

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