A Culture of Innovation

How to get the most out of your talented designers and engineers

I’ve shipped dozens of products over the course of my career — both as an engineer and as a product manager. But only a subset of those products would be considered “innovative”. And by that I don’t mean just disruptive innovation like the iPhone. Innovation does not need to be dramatic. It can be incremental — a cool new feature added onto your existing product that users adopt quickly and increases engagement, for example. But it does need to solve for a real need and be adopted (more on that here). The other products I shipped, those that don’t meet the bar of “innovative”, were just… “new”. I suspect, if you’ve been doing this for any amount of time, you’ve also experienced having your product or feature miss that bar.

My hypothesis is that we get some fraction of the innovative outcomes that we have the potential to deliver as an industry. I’m going to ignore marketing for the time being — it can certainly be the one thing that prevents your product from being adopted enough to be considered an innovation. But I think those cases are the exception, not the rule.

The Technology Innovation Culture Equation

Where ICC is the Innovation Culture Coefficient (max value 1). This means that your company is likely, at least partially, wasting the talents of the people that work there. Slowing them down to the point where the innovation that emerges is just a fraction of what the team could actually produce. I’m considering creating a survey to validate this hypothesis. I’m a scientist at heart and would love the data. But in the meantime know that these three aspects of ICC that I’m about to share come not just from my own experience, but also a deep love of learning and an intense curiosity about what it takes to innovate well. I’ve read books, taken classes, attended conferences, and read dozens and dozens of research articles on the subject. And it all points to these three things:

1) Empathy. Knowing your customer.

2) Psychological Safety. Making it safe to take risks.

3) Reflexivity. The habit of questioning what you are doing.

Culture Defined

But first, what is culture? Culture is the innate behavior and day to day processes of a group of people. Their understanding of what is normal, what’s not OK, how people should behave, how things should be done. Not just espoused values hung up in the hallway or quotes from a famous leader (I’m looking at you, Apple). When the boss says no, is that an invitation for debate or the end of the discussion? Do you typically write stuff down? Do you all agree that user research is a good thing to be done regularly? Do people answer emails until midnight? Do you use scrum? Design thinking? Do you share all information or keep things secret? These are all part of your culture. And the three aspects of culture that you need to work on in order to successfully innovate are empathy, psychological safety, and reflexivity.

Photo by Amanda Kerr on Unsplash


I’ve written about this before. It is vital to have user empathy to be a great product manager. But that’s not enough. The deeper the empathy seeps into the organization, the better the product. One researcher I worked with likened it to a really good marinade — the user data is the marinade, the team is the meat. When we redesigned the Apple Maps driving experience a couple of years ago, we went out and talked to navigation app users in different cities around the world. We brought our PMs, our designers, and a handful of engineers. By the time the research report came out and was presented to our VP a few months later (atypically long, FWIW), the new version was already designed and addressed all the problems in the report. To the point where the VP later said to me that the research was clearly a waste of time, since we had solved all the presenting problems before the report came out. Uh… no, not exactly! We solved the problems because the designers were in the room, watching the users pain. It seeped in.

The case for engineering is more subtle. Engineers are typically pretty busy when you are doing user research and less inclined to want to attend. But having been an engineer for 8 years of my career, I can speak from experience that when coding, you sometimes come across a decision to make that hasn’t been discussed yet; the answer for which is not in the spec. At that moment, you could wait and ask, or you could make the decision. If you wait, you’ve slowed down (less innovation). If you make the decision, having empathy will increase the odds of that decision being the best for the user (more innovation). It also makes for easier (never easy, but easier) consensus with the team on tough decisions when there is shared context about what the user really needs.

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Psychological Safety

Google made this term part of our vernacular with their Aristotle project, chronicled herein the NY Times. But the real hero of this concept is Amy Edmonson. It means that people on the team feel like it’s safe to take risks, to speak up, to challenge each other. That if they do these things, their status with the team is not going to be compromised. There will be no price to pay, if you will. In the absence of psychological safety, a team may still innovate. It is not always the case that free-flowing discourse about ideas is required for innovation. But if you want innovation to be frequent and repeatable, the research shows that it’s necessary. It allows for dissenting viewpoints to be voiced and considered, leading to the best decisions every step along the way.

How do you know if you are in a culture of psychological safety? When you aren’t sure that something is the best option, and you prepare to speak up, do you do so without hesitation? When the boss disagrees with someone, does the conversation continue as if it was anyone else? Does preparing for a review involve telling the truth about the hard problems you are facing and looking forward to getting more people thinking about them? Do you leave meetings feeling like everyone is on the same page? Do people respond to each other with honesty and respect? If you can answer yes to all of these things, you have psychological safety. Congratulations!

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


This word is not yet part of the hight-tech vernacular. It’s a bit academic, but bear with me. It simply means to have the habit of looking at what you’re doing and considering whether you are on the right path, what you can do better. Did we pick a solution too quickly? Wait, that new data indicates maybe we didn’t validate our hypothesis well enough. Should we automate that? Do we really need to ship this month or does the quality indicate we should wait?

If you think about it, this is the norm in professional sports. Teams constantly seek to improve how they practice, how they prepare, the plays they make, and so on. But too often, in organizations we do not challenge the way we have done things in the past or the even the decision we made yesterday. Why?

Agile attempts to build this in with sprint reviews (product reflexivity) and retrospectives (process reflexivity). But I’ve seen teams claim to be Agile and ignore this quite successfully. I’ve even seen teams do these things without really doing them. Demos all get applauded. Retrospectives complain about things outside the team’s control or the same stuff comes up over and over without being addressed. It’s understandable. Even with psychological safety in place, conflict is hard and when you are constantly searching for what could be better, through reflexivity, you are inviting it directly.

Many papers on innovation (that aren’t looking at reflexivity) note that a minority dissenter is important. I think this is a reflexivity band-aid. Minority dissenter is the guy that always has something critical to say about ~everything. Saying this person is necessary as opposed to building in reflexivity is the easy way out. It is easier to rely on one or two people to be the ones that challenge so the rest of us can avoid conflict and, perhaps more importantly, the label of naysayer. These people, even in psychologically safe environments, can get tired of the role and move on. Instead, building reflexivity into your culture makes it the norm to engage in looking for what we might be able to do better as a team, taking the weight off the minority dissenters.

So if you want to get the most out of the talent that your organization has so carefully recruited and so outstandingly compensates, take a look at your Innovation Culture Coefficient.

Good luck and happy innovating!

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