4 actions to create a culture of innovation

From perfectionist interventions to redefining performance, here's how to increase creative innovation

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Penicillin, microwave ovens, pacemakers, inkjet printers, x-rays, and fireworks. These transformative discoveries were all the result of mistakes unwittingly stumbled upon by their creators.

But most of us and our organizations, are so risk-averse that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs.


At the same time, the success of our organizations depends on innovation. People with the skills to create the future thrive in environments that foster potential; to stoke the flames of what’s possible, we must support taking risks, making mistakes, and learning from them.

How do we build resilience for mistakes within our organizations to support what’s required to innovate? We must cultivate a culture that makes people feel safe enough to try things, and if they fail on their first try, then trusted enough to try again or see their results differently.


It’s time to ask ourselves if our environments would have cultivated transformative inventions such as the x-ray or whether such advances would have been overlooked due to a punitive and fear-based culture. Work to transform your organization into one that manages without fear and perceived punishment. Here are four actions to help you build resilience for mistakes and cultivate creative trust in your workplace.

It’s time for a perfectionist intervention

People are contradictory. Most of us want to be creative, but at the same time, we subconsciously think we’re hired to be perfect and know everything. The higher we climb, the more perfect we should be, right? Wrong.

To create a culture that encourages learning, trying, and trying again with a new perspective—working through mistakes—we have to show (and reinforce) that no one is perfect and that what we think of as perfection is a roadblock to creative innovation. If everything was already perfect, why would we need to evolve?

First, be vulnerable and honest about your mistakes and the limitations of your skills and knowledge. Nothing puts out the fires of innovation faster than perfectionism. Instead, across your organization, ask each other for regular and ongoing “perfectionism interventions.” Remind yourself, others, and your teams that striving for the best work is radically different than pursuing unattainable perfection.


Eradicate us vs. them

When teams are overcome with “us vs. them” thinking, there’s an embedded fear of mistakes, retribution, and punishment. The two go hand in hand. If there’s an “us” that didn’t do anything wrong, there’s a “them” to blame. Antagonistic relationships between individuals or groups expose the factions that form in the workplace to transfer blame.


Watch and listen for repeated patterns of “it’s so and so’s fault” or “if X hadn’t happened, I’d have been able to keep things on track.” Commit to regular analysis and intervention. Ask tough questions kindly, and make it everyone’s responsibility to perform regular self-analysis when problems or mistakes arise. Be direct but kind when you say, “Are we sure everyone’s being accountable and thinking through their contributions, because mistakes happen—and are okay.” When teams are truly in it together, small mistakes become much more of a shared responsibility.

Focus on people, not problems

What leads a person who made a mistake to perceive it differently—to see it as an opportunity? Is it simply that some individuals have a “learner’s mindset” and analyze potential differently? Or can we reinforce and perpetuate environments that focus on problems instead of building trust and communication by putting people first?


We’ve all had managers who fixate on perceived problems, performance issues, or misunderstandings. A colleague once said, “My manager has branded me with a scarlet letter.” In other words, the team member couldn’t shake the appearance of a mistake, which became their identity at work.

Communicate with people, not problems. As it relates to outcomes, rather than just performance, spend a lot less time dwelling on problems and much more time discussing results, learning opportunities, and pivots with the people doing the work. Stop being so good at finding things that are wrong and better at finding things that are right; then amplify them.


Reframe the construct of “performance”

There’s pay for performance, performance reviews, and the dreaded performance improvement plans. Across all this performance, as in what is the performative role for which I’m serving as work judge, what’s substantive and objective feedback, and what’s not? So many people dread performance reviews, feel they’re punitive, or even dread the process. People cannot grow from something if they dread it. That means people are likely not learning and innovating in your organization. Within such a construct, we rarely communicate in a way that supports or nurtures trust or growth in results.


If you have an annual review process, consider sunsetting it like a product that has lost its relevance or meaning. Instead, establish short-term and focused goals, established by individuals working with their leaders, that serve as regular starting points for feedback and learning discussions that establish a trusting, blame-free dialogue. Results and outcomes aren’t “one size fits all.” Instead of comparative annual performance reviews, regular discussions on goals and their outcomes build a framework that fuels successful momentum.

In the absence of fear, we try and learn until we have a successful outcome—even if it’s a different result than what we set out to create. Be the team that fosters innovation, not punishment for lack of prescribed success.


In The New Work Exchange, Scott Cawood, Ed.D, CCP, GRP, CSCP, CBP, admits that his education and career have been in the pursuit of answering a very big question: how can we make work and workplaces better? Since 2015, he’s been the CEO of the non-profit member-based association WorldatWork, where his days are consumed with figuring out how to make work and the employee experience better for top organizations across the world.