It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Consider the Tale of Two Companies: TrustCo and ControlCorp.
ControlCorp is full of dreaded middle managers. Anytime you want to do something, you have to get approval from your manager, and she has to get approval from her manager and so on. Most of your day at ControlCorp is spent in meetings updating everyone on what you’re doing (which is often just sitting in other meetings). The employee handbook is filled with so many rules, procedures, and policies, it’s hard to keep them all straight. And don’t even think about suggesting a new way of doing things. Sure, innovation is part of the corporate motto, but the truth is ControlCorp has been doing it this way for a long time, and why mess with something that’s working?
TrustCo is very different. It maybe has a few managers, but for the most part, the place runs itself. You won’t find many rules, either. Sure, there are lots of processes, but they’re always changing, so taking the time to document them never seemed to make much sense. And there are meetings, too, but they’re for feedback and ideation, not updates and approval. TrustCo is not for everyone, though. It’s a place where everything is in flux. There’s no one person who’s accountable for everything; it really depends on the context. And there’s no one really telling you what to do, so you’d better be good at figuring that out for yourself. If ambiguity is not your thing, then you probably ought to look elsewhere for work.
So what’s the point of this little parable of these two very different (yet ingeniously named) organizations? It’s to show you that trust can create organizations that are radically different from what most people are used to. Their organizational structure is different; their meetings are different; their decisions are different; even how they spend their time is different. And that’s the point. So why is trust so good for innovation? There are three reasons: Time, Experimentation, and Collaboration.
The first benefit of trust boils down to simple arithmetic. There are only so many hours in the day (24 at the time of this writing), and you’re probably one of those people who sleep occasionally, and you probably need to eat, spend time with friends or family, and at some point, you may even want to, you know, relax. That doesn’t leave much time for work. If you’ve got three or four meetings scheduled on top of everything else, that only leaves a handful of good hours for actually innovating! Compare that to a day with no meetings. You’ve gone from four to eight hours of innovation time. Think about what that means at an organizational level. TrustCo spends twice as much time innovating as ControlCorp, without having to spend any more money. Which one would you bet on to succeed in their market?
Beyond just freeing up time, trust creates space for experimentation. If you come up with a strange, new idea, a team that trusts you will give you the opportunity to go out and try it. If there wasn’t trust between you and your team, you might be too afraid to even bring up the new idea in the first place. Or maybe you do bring it up, but it’s quickly quashed by middle managers whose mission is to maintain the status quo.
Not only do trusting teams give you the opportunity to try, but you actually have more ideas for experiments in the first place when you’re in a trust-filled environment. Why? Because of access to information. What do the managers at ControlCorp do with information? You guessed it; they control it. They’re afraid of what you might do with it. TrustCo, believe it or not, actually trusts you to do the right thing, so they give you access to as much information as possible. Information is where ideas come from. This may not be obvious at first, but it’s true. Ideas (and even the infamous eureka moments) happen when you connect two seemingly distant pieces of information. For more on ideation, check out our posts here and here, but the headline is the more you know, the more ideas you have.
Two heads are always better than one (unless, of course, you’re talking about a coin, in which case, that’s a problem). But that’s only true if you get along with your collaborators. Google spent a lot of time trying to find out why some of their teams worked so much better than others. There are so many variables to consider when comparing teams that this was no easy task. What they eventually found, though, was that the one thing that really made a difference is what they call “psychological safety.” These teams trusted each other enough to be open about how they were feeling. In their work, this manifests itself as candor. When you’re designing with other people, you’re going to disagree. And it’s important that you do disagree! Some of your ideas are going to be mediocre or even bad. Your only hope is to have someone you trust who will tell you that! Feedback is vital, but it’s not sustainable without trust. Without trust, critical feedback devolves into conflict and eventually hurt feelings. Team members that trust each other, though, can go to bat for competing ideas and still come out friends at the end of the day.
Trust keeps us moving forward
Most innovation happens in organizations — from two-person teams to multinational corporations. These organizations are defined by the rules they set and the decisions their members make. That environment can encourage, kill, or mildly tolerate creativity. By focusing on trust, we can create an organization where people spend less time updating and asking for approval. We can create a culture where people are encouraged to experiment and fail — yes, fail. And we can create a healthy environment of candid and sincere feedback. With trust, we can innovate.