This long-standing American holiday got me thinking: How does Freedom relate to what many leaders seek to create inside their companies? Most modern, effective leaders need a work environment in which people can freely pursue projects and ideas that are of passionate interest to them. This is THE critical success factor in fostering innovation and change … however, it can be tricky to build a culture that supports freedom while creating the boundaries necessary to produce efficiency and alignment.
There are 3 cultural traits necessary for fostering a culture that expresses freedom in the right ways
1) Clarity. The overall purpose, direction, and strategy of the business must be known by everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are a 10-person company, or a 10,000 person company, or a 100,000 company. Shared purpose is the foundation of any successful innovation. In America, it is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We protect this above all else … while as a country our individuals are not always in agreement about HOW, it is a common purpose. In a company, the clarity of direction is how you create independent thought and action – otherwise it’s just a group of people collecting a paycheck without connection to a common mission. Clarity takes time, patience, and consistent leadership attention to convey. It is not a one-time communication or a poster on a wall.
2) Values. In an organization, Values are both aspirational and descriptive of the leaders’ intent. If you want to foster shared ownership and innovation, it is essential to produce a simple document that defines this territory and talk frequently about what it means inside your organization. New people gain a quicker understanding of the culture nuances in how decisions are made, how the company interacts with its customers and marketplace, and how resources are divvied up. When there is a tricky decision, a moral dilemma, or just confusion “Is this idea or project worth pursuing” the Company Values (when made real) are an essential code-cracking device for independent thinking and action.
3) Willingness to Fail. This is a controversial topic in our culture. “Failure is not tolerated” starts young – in school, in the home, failure is to be avoided. But if you want to evolve, adapt and innovate in business, it is essential. It’s not about seeking to fail, it’s about seeking to learn from what doesn’t work. Quickly. Every leader realizes that some investments and projects will not work, be perfect the first time. It takes structure and patience to foster an environment in which we can talk about this: Where honest conversations about “what works, what needs improvement” is ongoing, continuous, open, transparent. NOT governed by political agendas or CYA or looking to impress the boss. It can get tricky to foster this balance: The Challenger disaster in the 1986 is a good example. We don’t want to launch rockets in space as an “experiment” while learning to fail. Yet, the post-mortem of this tragedy revealed several people at NASA tried to surface their concern about the o-rings, but were not listened to. At GM, many people knew about the faulty ignition switch issue, but the culture could not tolerate honest dialogue about problems and how to solve them. Simple as that.
In today’s fast-moving, dynamic, global economy … culture trumps strategy in driving innovation and change. If you don’t build a culture in which people feel a common unified sense of purpose, a clear code of how to interact and get things done, and a structure and expectation for surfacing honest conversations about “what’s not working” – it will be difficult to win in your market. Bottom line, your competitors will figure it out if you don’t.