Innovation Is Not a Democracy, and Other Thoughts

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Put systems in place to monitor progress. Yes, it’s true that you need to allow breathing room for ideas and innovation, but let’s face it, it’s not like tossing the dice and being fine with whatever comes up is a reality for any company. How do you balance acceptance of failure with the reality of the need to be successful and make money? For Gustafson, part of the answer lies in appropriate monitoring. “[Innovation] is hard to do because you constantly have to be communicating and you have to let people make mistakes, but you also have to be testing and monitoring,” he says. “You have to be able to measure it and have an indication of whether this is or isn’t working. If it's not working, you try and figure out why and take corrective action.”

What he’s saying is that yes, you do create a haven for ideas, an environment where people won’t be shot down for saying or doing the wrong thing, an environment that gives folks a reasonable amount of time to try something out (the opposite of micromanagement). But you don’t let the new processes, new ideas, or similar continue on their merry way without looking to see how they’re doing. You need to set milestones or appropriate points of time or development to check-in. And as he said, if something’s not working, you need to correct the situation.

Let the spirit of collaboration and respect for others guide your actions. At the end of the day, it is Gustafson who is the primary person judged on the revenue and success of the company, and therefore responsible for final decisions. Here as in all things, communication is key. “Not everyone will agree with all of the decisions you make,” he says. Still, “you have to be up front and tell people why [you made a certain decision] and why you believe this [is the right course of action], you constantly have to sell your ideas.” And perhaps most importantly, you have to admit it if you make a mistake, he says. (He’s not from the “pretend to be perfect” school of management.)

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