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Many start-ups do not manage to grow up into a scale-up. We assume that it’s due to not enough investment money, not a brilliant idea, or insufficient turnover, for instance. That’s true, but what lies underneath all of that? More often, the real failure lies in the lack of insight when it comes to building a successful organization.

What scientific breakthroughs are out there in the areas of leadership, culture, productivity, engagement, and decision-making? Where do the opportunities lie? I intend to discuss these with you in this new series of columns. I shall share what inspires me, gives me hope, and amazes me.

The hard truth about innovation

The greatest and most important insight to start with is the hard truth about innovative organizational cultures. What makes us successful often has several seemingly contradictory sides. You feel freer, once you know where the boundaries lie. Creativity is something you can best plan for. Gary Pisano summed it up very eloquently in his HBR article: The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures. It appears from countless studies, that for innovation, creativity, and success in teams we need a number of elements:

  • Psychological safety,
  • Mistakes may be made
  • Willingness to experiment
  • Strong cooperation
  • Non-hierarchical and strong leadership

Nothing new, then why is it so difficult?

Why is it so difficult to really embrace this in the blood running through an organization’s veins and, above all, to maintain it when scaling up? Gary does go into more detail on part of that answer in his article. In contrast to all five points mentioned above, there is one prerequisite that is not easy to establish and sustain.

Cooperation, shape it consciously

Let’s take something out of that article as an example. Cooperation is a top priority for every organization. We often see that an organization either puts the emphasis on individual achievements, up or out, or on teamwork. As in, we do it all together, one for all, all for one. Research tells us that we need both. For good cooperation, you also need individual accountability. That sounds contradictory, but when you look back on your study group at school, where you had to present one project with four people, we all still remember that one person who did nothing but got the same grade as the other three. Focus on working together by also emphasizing individual responsibility.

However, we are not there yet. What Gary does not underline is that we do not realize enough that individual achievements largely depend on situational factors. I call that the context. A leader can make anyone dysfunctional. Consider unrealistic sales targets or a too junior team that is unable to exceed expectations. Building a successful organization is a balancing act. We tend to race ahead. There are innumerable innovations for measuring cooperation, individual contributions, and context. Nowadays, we can measure, communicate, and make adjustments ourselves with the help of a number of tools.

Technology for cooperation

Aside from the convenience of all kinds of communication tools such as Slack or Frontapp that help promote collaboration, as well as ‘productivity-tracking ‘tattleware‘ that gives you the feeling that big brother is watching you, at the core of collaboration is the understanding that your work performance is not just determined by your own actions.

You can say something about context by combining technology that measures engagement. An example of a tool that provides good input for that is officevibe (there are hundreds of other options). If your organization is larger, and you are curious about the latest developments in this field, take a look at Keencorp.

Seek feedback on a structural basis

Where measuring individual input is concerned, it is better to seek feedback on a structural basis from colleagues and customers. However, we are unfortunately full of biases. We think that we are objective in our judgments and decisions but all too often we are not. It is for this reason that gathering input from a variety of angles is so important. Our weapon against a one-sided view. You can use all manner of tools for this as well depending on your organization, like impraise of CultureAmp, for instance.

And lastly; For years and years, research has shown that people have so much more potential and that we are capable of developing ourselves far more than we might think. Jeroen de Flander recently wrote a book about this: ‘De Wetenschap van Succes‘ (The Science of Success). You can actually learn to be outstanding. Pair that with insight into how we deal with feedback, brilliantly outlined by Douglas Stone in his book ‘Thanks for the Feedback,’ and you have laid the first building block for an innovative culture.

Inspirational leadership entails overseeing human complexity and blending science, technology, and daily considerations in order to create the right context. And that is precisely what is needed on the way to the top.

Read the IO interview with Wendy van Ierschot on the human side of innovation here.

About this column

In a weekly column, alternately written by Wendy van Ierschot, Eveline van Zeeland, Eugene Franken, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels, Mary Fiers and Hans Helsloot, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous episodes.