You don’t want to lose sight of your current business, but fostering ideas and innovation with your staff is increasingly essential.
Achieving the seemingly impossible could be one way to sum up several epic sporting events over the past few months. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908. The Clemson Tigers beat Alabama in the final second of the College Football National Championship. And then, there was Super Bowl 51 – the only Super Bowl to end in overtime with a Patriots comeback win over the Falcons. Although there were moments during these events in which each of the winning teams was behind, it was the never-give-up attitude and the unwavering belief in achieving the impossible that allowed them to succeed.
This belief is also what fuels a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship – a culture that, based on increased competition for work and the brightest talent, is no longer a “nice to have” for the AEC industry. It used to be that design firms could tweak existing services or open offices in new markets to substantially grow, adjusting to the opportunities that arise. Now, we must focus on creating and maintaining innovative new businesses – not only for clients who are relying on it, but also for the emerging talent who expect to be part of creating it.
Can you have a culture of innovation without entrepreneurship? Yes, and that’s much of what we’ve seen over the past several years. Innovation can introduce new ideas and foster creativity, but a culture of entrepreneurship transforms a great idea into a valuable business opportunity. Based on my own passion for creating a culture of entrepreneurship, here are five key observations:
- Breakdown the silos. All big ideas need a team to make them happen, but it’s constructing the right team that creates the sweet spot. Professional service organizations, even design firms, are seemingly notorious offenders of carving out highly specialized experts into defined practice areas. But breaking down the silos isn’t about turning everyone into a generalist – it’s more about allowing specialized experts to see how their work fits into a bigger picture. One of the simplest of ways you can merge talent is to physically change your workspace. Rid the mentality that everyone needs an assigned desk and create an open, flexible environment that inherently breeds breakthrough ideas.
- Question everything. A culture of entrepreneurship finds time for questioning and critically examining assumptions and the status quo. Oftentimes it’s the answers that we reward, but it’s the questioning that helps us learn and explore the unknown. To encourage an environment where people are more inclined to ask questions, Google offers wide-open weekly “TGIF” sessions where all employees are invited to submit questions to the company’s top executives. Those questions that rise to the top are fielded on the spot and set the tone that anyone can ask anything of anyone else. This open communication also sends the message that every employee has the ability to contribute to the success of his or her organization.
- Treat failure as a step toward discovery. Often after a failure, particularly one that costs your organization a substantial amount of money, it’s our natural instinct to quickly try and forget what happened. But innovative risk taking can drive growth and strengthen your competitive advantage, so empower your employees to try and fail (assuming you have the full support of this mindset by your leadership team). Treat the failure as an opportunity, and people will be more likely to try again and succeed at something else. Just recently, Microsoft committed an epic fail when they launched a Twitter bot by the name of Tay. CEO Satya Nadella responded with, “Keep pushing, and know that I am with you … The key is to keep learning and improving.” After all, oftentimes, innovation can simply be the improvement of something that already exists.
- Implement supporting programs. Several programs we’ve introduced at Little have proven that, if you give people the idea that an entrepreneurial culture is theirs to develop and the freedom to show initiative, then they do it. With LaceUp, a mini-grant program that has funded more than 60 projects, employees who have a unique idea or interest are awarded a stipend of up to $1,000 and up to 40 hours to explore it. Our Rethink program prompts proactive thinking and rethinking – in how we see the world, what we’re designing today and what our clients may need in the future. Companies like Google, 3M, and IDEO offer similar programs.
- Balance old and new. Roman God Janus had two sets of eyes for the purpose of always looking behind and ahead. A successful culture of entrepreneurship requires a balancing act between old and new. While it’s important to seek, develop, and sustain innovative new business opportunities, organizations can’t ignore the existing operations that earn the bulk of their revenue. They key is to meld old and new practices while not leaning too much in one direction. But if you must lean, lean forward.
Entrepreneurship comes in many shapes and sizes. Its sustenance comes from teamwork and curiosity, patience and hard work. Fully embracing a culture of entrepreneurship will nurture the belief that achieving the impossible is, well, possible.
Jim Williams is a partner and Little’s national director of design. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org