How to build a culture of innovation (even if you don’t code)
Scott Cook, CEO of Intuit, delivered a talk on innovation culture in 2006 that has spread far and wide in the years since. He talked about five models of innovation:
- The lone genius
- The boss is a genius
- Copy competitors’ inventions
- Cluster the geniuses in a lab
- Make your people the geniuses
At Atlassian, we have a five-point innovation list of our own:
- Innovation and creativity exist in everyone (it’s just that some of us have learnt to suppress it).
- Diversity of thought, skill, and background are essential ingredients for innovation.
- Innovation can’t be forced.
- People need time and space to let their creative, innovative juices flow.
- All great human achievements are accomplished by teams.
So it’s no surprise we follow the “make your people the geniuses” model. Innovation needs to be part of the entire company’s culture — not concentrated in a single person, or tucked away in a dedicated room.
Our mission to unleash the potential in every team starts at home, helping our own teams unleash their potential. I want to share how we do this so you can bring these practices to your team and build an innovation culture of your own.
What is a culture of innovation
The defining feature of an innovation culture is the belief that innovation is every employee’s job, not the domain of a few PhDs or top executives. That belief has to manifest in the way the business operates day-to-day, too. Company leadership have to give people the autonomy to create something new. Failure-while-innovating can’t be a punishable offense — in fact, it should be celebrated.
Finally, a culture of innovation reflects a certain restlessness. A hunger. A disdain for the status quo. An understanding that, in order to stay relevant, your company culture needs to mimic the 21st-century culture of rapid change and high expectations. If you wait to start innovating until your momentum peaks and levels off, you’re already too late.
Innovate every day, and be the change you seek
We can’t innovate every day without teammates who live and breathe our values every day. (Note that this is not the same as people who share your interests or are “like you”. Emphasizing shared interests just leads to homogeneous teams.) We incorporate a values interview into our hiring process to ensure all employees are aligned on values, even if our backgrounds and personalities differ. Which, hopefully, they do.
If you’re not in a position to institute values interviews, start with the people already on your team or in your department. Lead them through an exercise around discovering or codifying what your collective values are. Ask yourselves where curiosity, innovation, change, and risk tolerance sit in your world.
Try the Rules of Engagement play from the Atlassian Team Playbook. It’s a structured way to set the social contract and collaborate on culture.
Ideas that come out of this type of innovation are likely incremental improvements, and that’s ok. Each small change will build momentum around innovation, helping your team and your business stay relevant and competitive.
At the start of every project kick-off, or when on-boarding a new teammate, make sure you’re sharing your excitement and interest in innovation and respectful dissent. When you’re doing annual planning or mapping out your objectives and key results (OKRs) for the quarter, make sure stepping outside the ol’ comfort zone is baked in. Evolving your team’s practices, bringing something unexpected to customers, and hearing new ideas with an open mind are expectations you should be setting as a leader.
Innovate in teams, and own your environment
There’s no silver bullet. Structured innovation works differently in every company depending on your industry, history, local traditions and rituals, and your work environment. For companies like ours, spread across several continents, the innovation culture in one office will be just a little bit different for that of other offices. That’s why having a strong set of values is so important for innovation: they are the common foundation tying the culture together.
Teams across Atlassian practice different forms of structured innovation: from 20% time (1 day a week), Innovation Week (1 week every 5) or plays from our Team Playbook like “Disrupt” and “Sparring”. The idea behind structured innovation is to add a small number of constraints that actually make you more creative. WHAT? Yes. Research shows that we get the most creative when we’re constrained — “necessity is the mother of invention”, and all that.
So pick a team that is inclined to innovate, and give them a theme: how the team works, how the team engages with customers, an opportunity to improve the product or service, etc. Then, give them space and dedicated time for creative thinking. The constraints of topic and time-limit, are designed to give them enough freedom to diverge and think of wild ideas that’d be impossible to implement, along with plenty of time to converge around ideas that are feasible.
These exercises tend to create ideas that have a direct impact on the team. Often, the team will foresee a problem that would have bitten them eventually, but now can be solved before it causes any real trouble. Empowering a team to improve their working environment or a part of the product within their sphere of influence moves them from “whinge mode” to “accountable mode”.
Innovate without boundaries, and be bold
We’re talking true, disruptive innovation. Experimentation. Moon shots. Stuff that is fundamentally “out there”. The fewer rules, the better.
We create a space for the whole company to engage in this kind of innovation once each quarter, in a hackathon we call ShipIt. Like traditional hackathons, it runs for 24 hours — less than 1% of the working year. But we break from tradition by allowing non-technical projects as well.
Again, you can run a ShipIt day for just your team or department if it’s a step too far for your whole company. Be sure the high-energy moments, like the 3-minute lightening-style presentations and voting, happen in an open space where people in other parts of the company are likely to witness. Before you know it, FOMO will kick in, and other teams will be contacting you to find out more.
Prizes can be cheesy trophies or simply recognition and bragging rights. You’d be amazed at how motivating and engaging it is to see your idea out there. Ditto getting accolades and feedback from your peers. No capital investment needed — just time. Low risk, with a potentially high return.
The ideas that come out of our ShipIt are often maverick. So don’t look for a high ship rate, as this encourages participants to pursue conservative, “safe” ideas. Be bold. Be free. Have fun. Challenge norms. Dream big.
Cognitive diversity + curiosity + freedom = innovation
Underpinning all of this is our philosophy that innovation should be simple.
When you truly build an environment and adopt practices that support a culture of innovation, your teams start to take on the impossible. Your business starts to feel like a laboratory that celebrates experiments, generates new ideas, seeks constant feedback and nimbly evolves to delight your customers and squash your competitors.
Next time you think “prove it”, say “try it” instead. Open doors to creativity and innovation in your teams. Help them unleash their potential. Don’t be the bottleneck.