Mark Craemer No Comments

There’s a great deal of discussion today about the need for innovation in business. Innovation is what fueled the enormous growth of American companies throughout the last century, leading to the proliferation of the telephone, television, and automobile, and made space flight possible.

Innovation is essential to revolutionizing the way we live and help maintain a competitive edge in the marketplace. But this innovation requires fostering a workplace environment that includes employer trust and employee accountability.

Apple, with a market capitalization of more than $500 billion, is arguably the most valued and innovative company in the world. Their continual innovation has propelled Apple’s astounding profitability.

In the same way the Macintosh revolutionized the personal computer back in 1984, the iPod, iPhone and iPad created huge markets. These other products may not have been the first to market, but they were designed, manufactured and marketed in such a way that everyone had to have one.

Much credit has been attributed to the late Steve Jobs, but more than likely it was the culture he and others created at Apple that enabled this kind of innovation.

This is because Apple, unlike any other company, embedded the encouragement of creativity and “thinking different” into their corporate culture. This was no small task as creativity is all too often now left to fewer and fewer individuals in school and business.

Sir Ken Robinson, a leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation, says that if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. He contends that our educational system frightens us out of being wrong, and the willingness to be wrong is absolutely necessary in order to foster creativity.

In his book “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World,” Tony Wagner writes about the common characteristics of learning cultures at many schools and programs he profiled that offer innovative learning. They are all organized around the values of:

  • collaboration
  • multidisciplinary learning
  • thoughtful risk-taking, trial and error
  • creating
  • intrinsic motivation: play, passion, and purpose

David Liddle, co-founder of Interval Research, speaks of the fundamental characteristics of a creative organization. “It is first and foremost a place that gives people freedom to take risks; second it is a place that allows people to discover and develop their own natural intelligence; third, it is a place where there are no ‘stupid’ questions and no ‘right’ answers; and fourth it is a place that values irreverence, the lively, the dynamic, the surprising, the playful.”

The willingness of individuals to be wrong and management’s acceptance of them being wrong in service of innovation is critical to bring on real innovation.

Steve Jobs and the other Apple employees were able to see beyond where the technology and market was in the present in order to envision and deliver something entirely new. I’m sure there were plenty of false starts and jettisoned projects along the way, but this didn’t result in a reduced research and development budget. Instead, Apple embraced those setbacks as necessary in the natural order of innovation.

Google is another example of a company who provides engineers with space and time to play with ideas. Their 20 percent time program has so far resulted in Gmail, Orkut, Google News and Adsense as well as many internal projects.

All companies could encourage innovation not only in research and development, but in sales, marketing, operations, and even human resources. But this requires a great deal of trust for management and accountability for employees.

When management trusts employees enough to give them the freedom and opportunity to ask stupid questions, take risks, play with ideas, and not suffer from being wrong, then there is an environment that fosters true innovation. And when employees are held accountable for eventual results, they are no longer just doing a job but helping to make a difference in their company, themselves and quite possibly the world.

Bringing more trust and accountability to the workplace can provide an environment that enables innovation to occur. And that is a good thing for everyone.

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