steve cadigan.jpg

Everywhere you turn today, you hear and read about innovation. All companies want it, but few really offer it.

Why? Because as employers try to unlock the most creative, innovative ideas within their organizations, they often have no clue what it means to nurture a culture where innovation can thrive.

Based on my experience, it can be done. It's not easy, but it can be achieved.

I've been in the talent business for 30 years. I've worked in the fashion industry, the insurance industry, the semiconductor industry, among others. But it wasn't until I came to work in the Web industry with a new startup, a company you might have heard of, LinkedIn, that I truly discovered the secret of creating a culture of innovation.

What's the formula? Would it surprise me to say I can't tell you, but I know what it is? Well, that's exactly the case.

In my consulting career, I have worked with some of very interesting organizations. They all want to be innovative and ask how I helped create this innovative culture at LinkedIn. But as I said earlier, it's akin to asking, "How do you fall in love?" There is no single answer. You cannot control the outcome here and there is no formula that perfectly unlocks innovation because all of us are different and every organization is unique in so many ways. But there is a starting point, and it's the belief that to foster innovation means engaging people in ways that are not traditional, in ways that are not about control.

Fostering this culture begins by asking your employees what you can do to make them more productive, finding out what work settings and organization structures and communication schemes produce the best outcomes. You have to get close to your individuals and teams to learn who works best in small groups and who works best in large groups. Having an effective listening strategy is essential because ideas sit and flow everywhere. You need to tap into these insights in every way possible--and build systems, tools and work environments that foster free flow of ideas and insights. The companies that I see innovate well spend a great deal of effort making sure they are fostering cultures that surface insights quickly, and action them just as fast.

One of the big keys, of course, to successful cultures of innovation is having leaders who really get that their most important deliverable is unlocking ideas from their teams and putting the best ones into practice. These leaders spend a great deal of time observing, asking questions, being available, and finding ways to bring out the best in others. Innovation is not always a new product--it could be a new way of spending time, communicating, holding a meeting, or leveraging a new tool or tech.

At LinkedIn, we innovated but we didn't start with a plan saying we are going to innovate. We started with a belief that we wanted to be the best place our employees had ever worked and we relentlessly listened and adjusted and changed course based on constant input. Our ability to listen, move quickly, fix issues and surface great ideas became a great part of our success and I see this in many companies today that realize great outcomes--they are dedicated to constant iteration, to trying new things and adjusting course and engaging their whole teams in this endeavor. Building the ability to quickly change and adjust is becoming more important as a leader today than the ability to frame a long term plan because the future is so unpredictable.

On the other side, I still see too many companies who still think that performance reviews are the best way to run a company. Most of the companies I work with today are scrapping annual performance reviews for weekly conversation bursts that offer targeted feedback, focus and alignment in 15 minutes--so both employees and leaders can learn from one another, adjust and focus on the right things. This is the new reality.

When I was at LinkedIn we didn't even have a specific plan for innovation, yet in the end we completely disrupted the recruiting industry. In less than 10 years, we built a company worth over $25 billion. In the four years I worked at LinkedIn, we hired close to 3,000 people off a base of 400 against the sexiest, most competitive brands in the world. Google made more money in a day than LinkedIn made in a year in those days. Try growing talent in an environment like that. In the end, with a culture of innovation as the main driver, we grew our share price 7,000 percent in a five-year period.

LinkedIn proved that if you allow innovation to thrive, if you listen and learn, you do not need world-class experience to be a world-class organization. Most of all, to drive innovation, you have to get out of the way of your people and find ways to let them be great. Silicon Valley's insatiable hunger for talent is going to spread. No matter what sector you represent, you are going to start to feel it. If you want to create a culture of innovation then ask your workforce, your people, what keeps them from being their best. When you get those answers and begin to act on them, you will be off and running towards creating a culture of innovation.


* Originally published by Steve Cadigan here.