Innovative workplace, with no money down!
Being an “innovative workplace” isn’t just about having a great idea. Great ideas are a dime a dozen. The halls of history are littered with great, unrealized innovative ideas. Innovative workplaces instead are about the people and systems that allow and support ideas to be explored, nurtured, and often, nixed.
For many of us, when we hear “innovative workplaces” images of Google or IDEO flash through our minds. Not a bad connection, but it’s often assumed that to be an innovative company you need to provide free food and Razor scooters to race around colorful office. Yes, some innovative workplaces have those things, but many more don’t. Conversely, even more un-innovative companies have free pizza and beer but lack what truly makes innovative companies, well, innovative. Free-flowing beer and pizza do not an innovative company make. In fact, research shows that innovation and creativity often thrive more in environments with more constraints. Great news cultural sector! We’ve been bemoaning being resource starved for decades — this is the silver lining! Many of the elements that help create innovative workplaces don’t cost money.
You heard it right — Innovative workplaces, with no money down!
You can create an innovative workplace with little to no “extra” money. However, here’s the catch (or small print, if you will), buyer beware: it requires commitment and intent that will test even the most resolute. Innovative workplaces are often environments that are unsentimental. Not unsentimental in a mean way. They aren’t devoid of emotion or don’t feel a sense of loss, but they know if something isn’t working there are twenty other ideas in the pipeline waiting to be explored. Ideas that could use the oxygen, time, resources, and bandwidth to be explored themselves. Innovative workplaces are places that experience constant change. What was true yesterday isn’t necessarily true today.
You’re either moving forward or falling behind. There is no neutral when it comes to innovation.
This means innovative environments aren’t for everyone, particularly those who feel like they operate at peak in a relatively consistent workplace.
Below are ten ideas to help you and your organization on the road to becoming a more innovative company. These ideas don’t cost money and encourage an innovative environment where people can work smarter, not harder.
1. Be strategic in your hiring process. Align business goals & staffing needs.
What are you trying to achieve and who are the people who will give your organization its best shot at success? One of my longtime mentors once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re going to have a hard time knowing when you get there.” The same is true in business as it is in life. What is your organization working towards? More of the same? More of the same but bigger? What does success look like? Who the hell knows? Once you can articulate what success looks like, it’s so much easier to see how the pieces need to start falling into place. If our organization needs to go there, we’re going to need X, Y, Z skills to help us achieve that goal.
I’m a firm believer in it all starting with — in the immortal words of the great Jim Collins — getting the right people on the bus. I recently spelled out some of my philosophy on this topic in a primer about How to Hire. Don’t just settle for a warm body because you desperately need someone to do the work. You’re missing a huge opportunity to add knowledge, and depth, and diversity to your team. If you’ve done the work of knowing where your organization needs to go, and what type of skills you need to help you get there, then stay the course on finding the right people. Too hard? You’ll spend the time up front, or when that person you settle for doesn’t work out. Your choice, but my advice is find the right person up front. I’ve never passed on a candidate who wasn’t quite what we needed and not ended up with someone better in the end.
When you get that person in place, the work has just begun though. I’m also on record having outlined my philosophy on investing in our human capital. Burning through people like they’re disposable is not a long-term strategy for innovative workplaces. If you need more assistance figuring out how to align your business goals with your people strategy, check out Who: The A Method for Hiring. It’s a terrifically helpful tome, I promise.
2. Be transparent. Share information.
When employees have more information and context for how their work fits into the bigger picture, they’re more likely to make smarter decisions. Adopting this one has been a challenge for me in my career as it doesn’t come naturally. My default is to make sure everything is lined up and in order before sharing the information. I changed the way I approach that though after an organizational behavior mentor of mine explained, “It’s counter intuitive to do this, but research shows that giving people more information will bear out in better understanding, decision making, and engagement.” I decided to trust her on this one and take the leap.
Ever ask someone who you think made a really bad decision why they did it? Bet the answer wasn’t, “I was trying to make a really bad decision with the information I had available to me.” No, for the most part, people are trying to make the best decisions that they can given the information and context available to them. A friend recently remarked that the main difference between the company’s Receptionist and the CEO is that the CEO operates with more context. So, what to do about this?
Perception is in the eye of the beholder.
In the absence of information and context, people make decisions using their perceptions. These perceptions, created to fill in the blanks, are often misperceptions when viewed by someone operating with more context, but misperception is still someone’s perception regardless of how inaccurate it might be.
Being transparent with information doesn’t need to be done like the radical transparency practiced by Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater organization. Bridgewater famously records every meeting — even employee terminations — and makes the videos available on their internal network to any interested staff member. Think about it. Anything you say at work about anyone, or anything, is available to everyone.
What might an environment look like if it’s transparent but maybe not radically transparent. First, trust that people will do good things with the information. Yes, there might be someone who shares something confidential, but don’t create an information structure that treats everyone from the onset as rule breakers. Deal with those who can’t be trusted with the information if something happens. Otherwise, default to open.
What does open look like in practice? Share the unredacted board packet with staff, every staff member from the administrative assistant to the vice president. Share it a few days before the staff meeting so that people have a chance to read it and ask questions about things they don’t understand. Think your operations are too sensitive? Google shares their packet with their 65,000 staff members and only redacts things that would be illegal to share due to SEC regulations. So, essentially, their entire packet goes out to tens of thousands of staff exactly as it does to their board members. Remember, greater ability to see how decisions work in the whole allows people to make better decisions themselves. Additionally, people will be more invested and do better stuff if they feel like it’s theirs.
During your all staff meeting set aside a section called “Ask the ED (Executive Director),” or “Know the CEO,” and let staff submit anonymous questions in advance and field some in real time. I guarantee you that staff have questions for their Executive Director if given an opportunity. We’ve been doing it for years at Fractured Atlas and the questions vary meeting to meeting, but there are always questions. Sometimes people want to know why a certain project failed. Other times people want to know the Executive Director’s favorite kind of donut (granted, that meeting fell on National Donut Day). For the executive, this might take some work to answer any question asked in a non-confrontation or non-combative tone, particularly if it relates to things that aren’t going well or things considered to be sensitive subjects.
This Q&A is a chance for everyone to share their perceptions, or misperceptions, to get people “on the same page.” I once heard a choreographer explain to someone that they were always are asked, “Which comes first, the music or the movement?” The choreographer was saying they get tired of answering a question they’ve received probably 1,000 times in their career. It was at this point that the other person said, “But it’s the first time that that person asking the question is hearing your answer.” Sometimes it might not be the first time for the answer — Really? We’ve talked about this at every meeting — but if people are still asking the question, they still need the answer.
One way to increase transparency in the organization is to align goals using Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). Simply, OKRs allow the chief executive to set the priorities as 2–3 broad objectives and more specific 4–5 associated key results under each objective for a given period (often every quarter). Those who report to the executive then create their OKRs for the quarter, specifically spelling out if an objective is a “child of” the executives. The process then cascades down through the organization so that each staff member can publicly identify their priorities for the period and see how they contribute to the organization’s success. At the end of the quarter, OKRs are graded on a binary achieved (Yes) or not achieved (no partial credit), and then shared with everyone in the organization. (Success rates should land around 70%.) When everyone knows each other’s priorities, can see how well they’re doing at achieving them, it allows everyone to make connections with their own work and leads to better alignment and success.
3. Use SMART task forces for idea exploration
That’s a great idea! Who wants to put it on their already packed plate? The next time someone floats an idea that might be worth exploring but the knee jerk response is, “We don’t have time or money,” ask yourself if this might be just the thing for a SMART task force to tackle. (SMART as in Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Time-bound.) The knee jerk response is an old way of thinking. Not enough time! Not enough money! We’re trying to create an innovative workplace. The organization’s next big thing might come out of a task force.
When we’re kicking around new ideas at Fractured Atlas that we think might have legs, a finite lifespan, or it doesn’t live in any one person’s domain, we’ll often convene a cross-organizational task force to dig in and explore it. Some companies have “20% time” where staff can use a few hours a week to work on projects they’re interested in outside of their “assigned” portfolio. Our task forces are more like 5–10% time. They bring together a few people from around the organization who don’t typically have a chance to work together on a project. Bonus: Task forces often afford staff who are earlier in their careers opportunities to develop and exercise leadership skills by chairing the group.
For the most part, task forces are scheduled whenever the group of people can find time, and we typically don’t provide any money at the onset. If something looks like it might work, we give the group a couple of dollars or additional resources to take the idea to the next level. Then a few more dollars if it continues to be promising. If not, we wrap things up, document, and move on. If we keep “knee jerking” away the ideas that don’t fit in the finite time we have, when is it that we intend to explore new ideas, new ways of thinking, new opportunities? When the current ones die out? Task forces allow us to exercise those muscles so that we create a culture of exploration and innovation within our organizations.
4. Use lunchtime strategically.
On its face, this is relatively simple to do. Most us eat lunch every day. Most of us do so huddled over our keyboard dropping crumbs into the keys as we flip from website to website. Lunchtime is often a huge missed opportunity to learn new things, connect with real live humans, make connections that will add information and context for your work, or to simply give your brain a much-needed break.
A recent study found that those who worked through lunch were rated as more exhausted by coworkers at the end of the day. One of the things the researchers discovered was that even reading recreationally during breaks (e.g., catching up on the news, checking your Facebook or Twitter feeds), taxes your brain in the same way as “work” reading. You think you’re taking a breather, but instead you’re just plowing your mental energy deeper into the red. Use lunchtime to stare out the window and let your mind wander. Or take a stroll around the block. The Internet has made it so easy to stay at our desks and keep working, that it’s now a novelty to go out to pick up lunch. Take your lunch like it’s 1989!
After nearly 20 years in the workforce, I recently lost my dedicated desk when we renovated our office. It was at this point in my 40s that I discovered a fun, new thing to do around lunchtime: go to the kitchen and eat with coworkers. Don’t think for the first few weeks that I didn’t feel anxious as my computer called out, reminding me that I needed to get. things. done. In the same way that working remotely versus working in the office allows us to do different types of work (often quiet, focused work), sitting and eating with other people for a few minutes allows you to use your time in a different but still important way. Give your brain a break. Let your ideas percolate in the background.
If you’re still struggling with the idea of lunchtime not hunched over your laptop, might I introduce you to a concept called Management By Walking Around. It’s either the laziest or most brilliant management philosophy ever — we won’t debate that here — but at its core is that part of the manager’s job is to be walking around, talking with people, learning new things, connecting human to human. If you’re a manager who thinks their lunchtime is too valuable not to “work,” broaden your frame for what work includes. Somebody invented an entire management philosophy that now gives you a business reason to never eat lunch alone. You’re welcome.
Another way to use lunchtime strategically is to bring in outside experts. At Fractured Atlas we call it the Visiting Professional Series. Every few months we bring in a guest to join us for an hour pizza lunch. Bringing in outside experts, especially those from sectors outside of the arts, exposes us to ideas and perspectives that expand the horizons for our own work and the world in which we live. You can also go with staff Brown Bag lunches to share ideas, experiences, and learning among your team. Bonus on this one is that while you’re learning new things, those sharing have an opportunity to practice their presentation skills.
5. Hold at least a monthly full staff meeting.
I’m amazed at how many organizations I come across in the cultural sector who don’t hold any, or regularly scheduled, all staff meetings. (See above: Be transparent.) When do you all get together to discuss your work, priorities, challenges, questions? I hate to keep bringing up Google (well, not really, I think there’s a lot to admire and steal from Google on the People front), but they have 65,000 staff members and have regular all hands meetings. A few years back, I had the opportunity to attend Zappos’s quarterly all hands meeting, and they had 1,600 employees at the time. And you don’t have a regular staff meeting, why?
We recently changed the format of our monthly Fractured Atlas staff meeting from one primarily composed of “report outs,” to one that circulates a meeting packet in advance and a call for pre-submitted questions. Same reports as before, just in written form. This gives people more time to read, ponder, and think about questions they might have about what we’re doing. We also set up a system for people to submit questions (anonymously, if they want) for any section — Know the CEO, Programs & Activities, External Relations; Finance, Operations & People. This allows those who might not be comfortable questioning the CEO or senior leadership directly, or speaking up in front of all of their coworkers, or wanting more time to consider the right question an opportunity to ask their question.
An all hands meeting is the most expensive meeting you likely will have. Don’t just report out. Do what you can’t do at any other time? Build a culture of transparency and sharing, that allows staff to make important connections from their work to the organization’s mission and goals.
6. Be Intentional & Persistent
Innovation doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t sudden occur when you think of that “great idea.” Great ideas die on the vine unless they’re hatched in an environment where they can be nurtured and grow. You can’t just wait for that great idea and then say, okay, time to create an innovative environment. Creating an innovative workplace take intent. Often you don’t know where that next big idea will come from so you need to be ready for good ideas coming from anywhere and everyone in the organization.
Innovative workplaces encourage experimentation and build it into every aspect of organization. Small, iterative developments allow you to explore ideas (See also: SMART task forces). Try something small. See what happens. Don’t test a new, interesting idea on your entire annual appeal mailing. Pull out a small sampling to test. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
Be intentional and persistent. Actively talk about and encourage new and different ideas. Give them air and support. Figure out why things failed and then go at it again. The 3M organization now famously created 15% time (time where employees could work on things they found interesting outside of their current portfolio), when the company was deep in the red financially. They adopted an “Innovate or Die” ethos, and from their intent and persistence sprung an office essential: Post-its. Google’s take at 15% time (or 20% time in their case), yielded Gmail. 3M and Google didn’t set out to discover Post-its and Gmail, but being intentional about creating an innovative environment lead to two things that are now indispensable in the modern-day office.
Your organization’s Post-its or Gmail is waiting to be discovered. Don’t set out to discover it, you’ll likely miss it. Set out to create a workplace where they can be discovered.
7. Ask Forgiveness not Permission
Sometimes you need to grab the bull by the horns, unless, in fact, you are trying to grab a literal bull by its horns. In that case, quickly walk away. Few things get me more agitated than when I hear someone say in a helpless voice, “I wish my organization would do X.” Newsflash: An organization is a collection of its people, and if you are on staff, you are in fact the organization you’re bemoaning. If you think something is truly worthwhile and going to make a positive impact, you need to figure out how to do it and risk asking for forgiveness later if things doesn’t turn out well.
For the past year, I’ve been conducting Crucial Conversations trainings. One of the powerful parts of the curriculum explores stories we tell ourselves that often feed our inability to have productive conversations. In particular, there’s the “Helpless” story — There’s nothing I can do. To combat this story, we need to ask ourselves, “What can I do right now to move towards what I really want?”
We will face plenty of roadblocks in our careers, some actual, some imagined. When you encounter one, rather than bemoan your plot in life, ask yourself what you can do right now to move towards what you really want. “They” never take my ideas. I think this would be transformational for our organization but I can’t get “them” on-board. Guess I’ll just have to keep toiling away, silently fuming. No! What can you do right now to move towards what you really want? You always have at least one option, even if you don’t think it’s a great one: you can always quit. Less drastic ways though, you ask? Noodle away on an idea in private, or in your discretionary time, or with a group of friends or coworkers.
Is it a great idea but not right for your organization? If it has promise, you might have discovered your next career move. Or your new hobby. I once created an online television show with a friend because we couldn’t convince anyone to program the conference content we were interested in consuming. Nobody could stop us from doing it ourselves though, or originally live streaming it from my hotel room during the conference (which must have been weird when the cleaner came into my room each.
What can you do right now to move towards what you really want? Sometimes people can’t see why something would be great. A quote often attributed to Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they wanted they would have said faster horses,” captures this. Sometimes people need to see the idea fleshed out a bit. Sometimes people can see exactly why something isn’t a great idea. We just need to flesh it out a bit. (I once found this out the hard way by starting a Junior Committee against the advice of five different Directors of Development.) If you think something is a great idea, but can’t garner support for it, ask yourself what you can do to move towards what you really want.
8. Be appropriately autonomous.
People who know what’s going on are often on the “frontlines” of the organization yet many times feel impotent to do anything about what they see. While you don’t want to give someone the ability to burn the place down on day one, figuring out how to calibrate appropriate amounts of autonomy will allow ideas, projects, and processes to develop without the bottlenecks that result when everything needs to run through a few individuals.
Don’t get me wrong, there are those who like the cover that comes with somebody else making the decisions. It’s easier to complain when you aren’t the one required to make the tough calls. (See also: Helpless story.) There are many more though who could do great things with their newfound information and context, but just need decision making pushed to those who need to deliver the impact of the decisions.
Want to figure out how to do this in your own organization? I’m a fan of Fierce Conversation’s Decision Tree model used to teach delegating skills. The Decision Tree model can be useful when working to set clear expectations and boundaries for decision making as people grow in the organization. It’s four levels of decision making correspond to the potential consequences of a poor decision:
Leaf. A leaf level decision is going to have little or no effect on the overall tree. You are autonomous and empowered to make a leaf decision without consulting others or telling your manager.
Branch. A branch level decision carries more risk than a leaf decision. You are empowered to make a branch decision and take action but must report what you have done to your manager.
Trunk. At the trunk level, the risk to the tree’s health is much higher. You can make the decision but before you take any action, you must discuss it with your manager.
Root. At the root level, the wrong decision can be life threatening and even terminal. You must discuss the pros and cons with your manager and others before you make a root decision.
Go ahead, plant the tree. See what happens.
9. Question conventional wisdom, preconceived ideas, snap decisions & assumptions
The next time you’re in a meeting where decisions are being made using conventional wisdom — it’s how it’s done — ask yourself why. Questioning conventional wisdom is how Elon Musk’s SpaceX is able to build rockets cheaper, by some counts 300 times cheaper, than everyone else can. Why is that how you build a rocket? Why is that how you produce and market a season, tour internationally, or create an annual appeal?
Want another tactic? Try using an exponential approach — or moonshot thinking — to identify other ideas. When you’re tossing around ideas about how to grow your donor base from 250 to 500 people, instead try to figure out how you could grow it from 250 to 25,000 in the same amount of time. You can’t accomplish the latter’s exponential growth with the former’s incremental ideas. Unless you’ve been incredibly lazy, “working harder” isn’t a viable strategy for achieving exponential results. It takes approaching the challenge in a completely different way.
Lastly, be open to alternative uses or approaches. Banging your head repeatedly against the wall might make you miss the door to your left. There are countless examples of this in the tech industry. Companies that failed to recognize in time the actual use case for their product, and companies like Instagram that set out to be Four-square like app only to realize that people just wanted it to share photos. Don’t miss the door to your left by blindly following assumptions and conventional wisdom.
10. Don’t retreat at the first sign of difficulty
Creating an innovative workplace isn’t an easy road. It’s new, different, doesn’t come natural to most of us, and from an organizational management standpoint, is essentially trading your existing set of challenges for a different set of challenges. It is, however, a set of challenges that when unlocked, enables an organization to change the world. And change-the-world action is how we need to be operating right about now. Old way, we get incremental impact at best; new way, we have a shot at the moon.
When creating an innovative workplace, you’re exercising new and different muscles. It’s going to ache a bit as you get started until you’ve adjusted to the new routine. Those who have New Year’s resolutions to exercise more know exactly what I’m talking about right about now. We can always pull the rip cord and go back to sitting on the couch enjoying pizza and beer. But, just like we know exercising, eating well, and getting eight hours of sleep is the foundation for a healthier, longer life, so too are these essential building blocks for a workplace that explores new ideas.
Innovative workplaces are bespoke. Not one-size-fits-all.
On your journey to creating an innovative workplace, it’s not about looking like Google, IDEO, Motley Fool, Zingerman’s or Zappos, it’s about looking like your company just more innovative-y. Figuring out the recipe and right mix of ingredients for your organization will allow you to build an innovative environment that’s much more resilient than if you merely tried to copy Google.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Fractured Atlas has it all figured out. Creating an innovative workplace is messy and constantly evolving. Even Fractured Atlas couldn’t just take what we have now and use it as a template to create what we have now. It’s been evolving over the past 15+ years. Do X, wait 15 years, is not the best strategy for creating an innovative workplace for today. Creating an environment that shares information freely, engages people in the process, and is intentional and persistent will have you well on your way to being your innovative workplace… with no money down.
Tim Cynova is a certified Senior Professional in HR and the Chief Operating Officer at Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit technology company that helps artists with the business aspects of their work. To learn more about Fractured Atlas, or to get involved, visit us here.
About Tim Cynova
Tim spends his time assisting teams and organizations with the things they need to create innovative workplaces where people thrive. He is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), a trained mediator, on faculty at Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity and New York's The New School teaching courses in Strategic HR and Leadership & Team Building. He is a certified trainer of the Crucial Conversations and What Motivates Me frameworks, and is a firm believer that Work. Shouldn't. Suck. He currently serves as the Chief Operating Officer of Fractured Atlas (where he is a member of the organization’s four-person, non-hierarchical shared leadership team). Prior to that, Tim was the Executive Director of The Parsons Dance Company and of High 5 Tickets to the Arts, had a memorable stint with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was a one-time classical trombonist, musicologist, and for five years in his youth he delivered newspapers for the Evansville Courier-Press. Also, during a particularly slow summer, he bicycled across the United States.