Creating an Environment of Innovation

This is the third in a three-part series on Innovation. The first part discussed the need for innovation, with examples of companies like 3M that have achieved success by continually innovating. The second part was on encouraging innovation in the workplace by hiring Idea Generators.

I’ve written about the need for innovation in the workplace and provided some tips on how to hire Idea Generators. In this post, I’ll discuss how to create an environment in your business that encourages innovation and creative thinking.

In some businesses, employees are blatantly or subtly encouraged to keep their thinking squarely inside the box. The most creative they are allowed to be is when it comes time to order lunch.

If you want innovation in your workplace, and trust me, you do, you need to actively encourage it by following these suggestions.

Plan your space to allow for easy collaboration

As Margaret Heffernan, a former CEO of five businesses said, “For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.”

If you’ve read anything about the history of Pixar, you know that Steve Jobs influenced the design of the building to encourage interaction and unplanned collaborations among departments. He went so far as to suggest that the large campus only have one set of bathrooms in the atrium so employees would be forced to go there several times a day. (That idea was quickly vetoed.)

“If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity,” Jobs said. “So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”

Give employees time during the week to explore their passion projects

In my first post on Innovation, I wrote about 3M and how it’s grown into a multi-billion dollar company through developing innovative products. The company has done this by implementing their 15 percent time rule, one it has had since 1948. 3M allows its people the time to investigate their ideas. That time has resulted in products such as Scotch tape and the Post-it note.

They also reward the best of these. Twice a year, six to eight ideas are awarded Genesis Grants, and the employees receive from $30,000 to $75,000 in seed money for 12 months of research.

Host a Hackathon

Started in the software industry, a hackathon is an event that pulls together people from different departments. It may last from one day to a week, generally with a specific purpose in mind.

Hootsuite hosts Hoot-Hackathons, two-day casual events for employees to meet new people and pitch ideas. “These events foster a culture of innovation and gets people enthusiastic about new ideas. Plus, it doesn’t cost a lot,” wrote Ryan Holmes in the article “Innovate or Die: 3 Ways to Stay Ahead of the Curve.”

Don’t punish failure and mistakes

Failure and mistakes are the steppingstones to mistakes. The Japanese engineer Soichiro Honda said, “Success is 99% failure.” I’m not sure I’d agree with that high of a percentage, but you get the idea. If some ideas don’t pan out, you’ve learned something. Remember what Albert Einstein said, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there will be no hope for it.”

Have your employees on board with the concept

Even those employees who may not be your most creative can take pride in working for a company that encourages and embraces it. And besides, you never know where that next great idea will come from. Let your employees know that you are looking for creative thinking.

The American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “Once you have an innovation culture, even those who are not scientists or engineers – poets, actors, journalists – they, as communities, embrace the meaning of what it is to be scientifically literate. They embrace the concept of an innovation culture. They vote in ways that promote it. They don’t fight science and they don’t fight technology.”

Management Consultant Peter Drucker said, “Business has only two basic function – marketing and innovation.”

Companies tend to spend a lot of time and attention on marketing. How is your company handling the function of innovation?

Admit Your Mistakes

“The CEO of Apple says a leader should admit when he’s wrong.”

“That won’t work for me because I’m never wrong. The best I can do is admit when other people are wrong.”

“That sort of misses the point.”

“Well, I humbly admit you’re wrong.”

— A Dilbert cartoon by Scott Adams

A friend was interviewing a woman for a high-level position in his company and asked a fairly typical question. “What was a mistake you made and how did you handle it?”

“Well, I’ve never made a mistake,” she said.

I would have ended the interview right there. With those six words, that woman revealed that she is not someone I want to hire. She let me know that she did not recognize her mistakes and that when things do go wrong, she’ll either deny them or blame someone else.

Every person and every company makes mistakes. The important part, and the way to judge someone’s integrity and business savvy, is what they do next.


Steve Jobs would admit when Apple made mistakes. “But we learned from it,” he would say.

I encourage the executives I work with to admit their mistakes. The first chapter of my new book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me,” starts with my encouragement of presidents, CEOs or owners of businesses to admit their mistakes. While my book is based on lessons learned from CEOs’ mistakes, my readers can’t begin to handle the problems facing their own companies until they admit their mistakes.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iCloud in 2011 in one of his famous keynotes, he dealt with the elephant in the room — Mobile Me — straight on and with humor. Everyone in the room knew that Mobile Me had been a failure and had been clobbered by its competitors. The iCloud was the new product Apple was introducing in its place.

As he was introducing iCloud, he said, “You might ask, why should I believe them? They are the ones that brought me Mobile Me. It wasn’t our finest hour — let me just say that. But, we learned a lot.”

Many people, perhaps men in particular, worry that admitting their mistakes will make them look stupid. Well, what happens when they don’t admit their mistakes and they get found out? Then they look foolish and deceptive.

But if you admit your mistakes, people will trust you and respect you as a leader. And trust and respect are important to building strong business relationships with your employees and customers.

I tell a story in the book about a CEO that refused to admit when he made a mistake, choosing instead to gloss it over. That refusal ended up costing the company $8 million. See what I mean about learning from CEOs’ mistakes? That one was a doozy.

We are all going to make mistakes. They can actually be turned into opportunities. As Albert Einstein said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

The most important part is admitting the mistake and then to follow Steve Jobs’ example: learn from it. And move on.