How Improving Trust can help lead to a Culture of Innovation

From masking tape to Post-its, 3M is well known for its innovative culture. 3M has an annual goal that 30 percent of its annual profits come from products and businesses that are less than four years old.  Wired Magazine describes how 3M tackles that goal with their “15 percent solution.”

For decades, engineers at the St. Paul, Minnesota, company have spent up to 15 percent of work hours on their own projects, playing with ideas that have nothing to do with their job's mission. This unwritten rule of 15 percent dream time is so ingrained at 3M that ‘you can feel it right down to your toes,’ as one scientist put it.”

In 2008, Harvard Business Review wrote about fostering creativity at Pixar. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, talks extensively about risk taking, collaboration, and new ideas.

Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, describes how a company [can] create an environment where ideas can flourish in all sorts of ways, by saying, “It has to be an experimental culture. There has to be an enthusiasm for new ideas. You have to have a culture that’s willing to explore new ideas, test them and then get rid of them if they’re not good ideas. If ideas get shut down, if they’re only allowed to happen in some little corner, or if only certain people are allowed to have ideas, then you’re failing to tap into the innovation potential of an organization. So this notion of experimentation is thoroughly important.”

The examples from the companies above can help enumerate a partial list of characteristics of creative and innovative cultures:

  • Support for risk-taking
  • Freedom to fail
  • Support for collaboration
  • Openness to new ideas and suggestions
  • Free flow of information
  • Open access to information

In the world of software testing on the Microsoft Lync team, a climate of high trust empowers test engineers on our team to experiment with new defect discovery techniques. The more variety and diversity they can apply in their methodology helps them with earlier discovery of new classes of defects — and that helps us deliver a higher quality experience for our customers. 

Organizational trust is a fundamental component in any environment displaying the characteristics of experimentation, risk-taking, openness, and collaboration.  Employees will not take risks or experiment with bold approaches that may fail if they do not trust that they can do so without fear of retaliation. If the employee feels they will lose pay or get in trouble for failing, they will not risk failure. On the contrary, in a high trust environment, bold experiments can lead to radical innovation.  

What’s the best way to build organizational trust? There is lots of great research. Stay tuned and in the next post, we’ll talk more about some of the things we have been trying on our team — what has worked well, where we have learned lessons, and how we continue to experiment.

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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