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How to create an innovation infrastructure

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Everett Harper, CEO and cofounder, Truss

Jane Jacobs, one of my favorite change makers, wrote in 1961: "Why have cities not … been identified, understood, and treated as problems of organized complexity?" This line, from The Death and Life of Great American Cities, has even more resonance today, since 54% of the planet now lives in cities, up from 30% in 1950; this figure is estimated to reach 66% in 30 years.

Our most pressing challenges—from creating livable cities to addressing global warming and dealing with artificial intelligence—are complex and growing at scale. The stakes are high for getting it right.

Unfortunately, much of the default infrastructure of leadership, management, governance, performance, and personal practice are mired in 20th Century models: command-and-control governance, linear thinking, and genius-led homogeneous teams, to name a few. Unfortunately, these are mismatches to the nature of complex problems at scale.

Here's why you need to think infrastructure first (and beyond technology) for unleashing innovation within your organization—and how to do it.

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The new requirements for innovation

Here's an example of old models: When I put my hand under an automated hand dispenser, it works on the first try about 30% of the time. Meanwhile, white people to either side of me are getting the blast of soap without fail. It is a common annoyance that dispensers are blind to dark skin, just as film and now digital cameras are optimized to light skin.

But when my skin is invisible to an autonomous truck bearing down on me at night, the results are lethal. I suspect the design team behind these innovations has the best of intentions, but it had a blind spot that could kill me. And, given how code can spread and scale out of control of the original team, it is easy to imagine that it could be embedded in millions of vehicles around the world.

If you knew that you could prevent fatalities by including people who had different skills, insights, perspectives, and backgrounds, would you do it? There are numerous studies and data on how team diversity and inclusion—by background, experience, and perspective—lead to better innovation, business outcomes, and financial returns.

Yet the blind spot persists: When Stanford University’s $1 billion Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence announced its 121 faculty members, not a single member was African American.

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Courage and vulnerability

I think there's something deeper: courage and vulnerability. The research of University of Houston professor and author Brené Brown makes the compelling case that vulnerability is a required stage before courage. In the words of a group of US Army Special Forces members, "In the field, there is no courage without vulnerability."

But again, most of our management models condition us to put on our armor to hide the very thing—vulnerability—that would enable us to voice the contrary opinion that would save lives.

For leaders especially, showing and enabling vulnerability represent a significant shift from the mental model of omniscient commander toward the curious experimenter. My favorite model for this is the chancellor of Georgetown University, John DiGioia. When tasked with the job of creating the 21st-century university, his approach was similar to a great prototype lab: Create a multi-disciplinary team, create hypotheses, and experiment. His response to unexpected, negative or embarrassing results? "Oops, will you follow me anyway?”

The infrastructure of innovation

So what explains the persistence of suboptimal models that exacerbate our blind spots? Let’s be real; innovation, courage, and vulnerability are hard. They're particularly hard when there's no visible support for individual courage, or when leaders invoke the "We have a culture of innovation" mantra while resisting or punishing ideas that challenge their perspective. Just as innovative projects such as digital cameras failed to emerge from Kodak, team and individual innovations can be like antigens in the default workplace.

What's missing is an infrastructure for innovation—a systematic approach where people, processes, software, and operations are intentionally designed to encourage new ideas by supporting the courage that's required to voice them.

We faced this situation at my company. We tried an innovation directed at a common blind spot: Women and people of color are still paid less than white men for the same work. Even for well-intentioned companies, this inequality persists because there are systemic, fundamental biases embedded in ordinary processes that preserve and even amplify inequality in compensation. We needed to create an experiment that was equally embedded in our infrastructure.

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What if everyone knew your salary?

Our experiment: salary transparency. We wanted to make all salaries, from executives to interns, transparent and visible internally. Because salary and compensation can be a sensitive topic for employees, we intentionally created milestones that would "de-risk" the project. This was a key part of project infrastructure that ensured we addressed the areas of highest risk early, while still making progress.

The first step was to survey our employees (then 20) to assess interest or resistance to the project. Only one person indicated hesitation, so we moved to the second step: the research phase. We moved to the edge of our knowledge, researching root causes of salary disparity in negotiation, leave policies, hostile environments, and individual visibility and recognition, among others.

We had already built some infrastructure to measure demographics because, as our friends from Project Include pointed out, you can't manage what you can't measure.

The fourth step was to bring employees with different levels of experience into the ongoing legal, financial, leveling, and banding research. We knew that an open communication channel was a critical piece of infrastructure, to reduce the risk that comes with a lack of employee engagement. We dedicated several retro meetings to get input, concerns, fears, and opportunities from the entire company. From these, we clarified our rollout plan and set a date to announce our findings.

Following more than nine months of work, we announced that salaries were transparent—and the immediate reaction was rather ho-hum. Of course there was curiosity, but because we had consistent communication, hit our deadlines, and engaged employees in creating the solution, there wasn’t much that was new.

Mostly, people felt a sense of satisfaction that we were taking a bold step to ensure that women were paid the same as men for the same level and performance.

Since then, Truss has nearly quadrupled in size and added additional infrastructure, such as periodic internal surveys, and quarterly salary and banding reviews. We developed playbooks for hiring, recruiting, onboarding, reviewing, and compensating every employee. In total, this represents a scalable, repeatable, sustainable process, which should be the goal of building infrastructure to sustain innovation

A model for the future

An infrastructure for innovation is an infrastructure for bravery. We can learn from innovative, brave, high-stakes teams that employ sports psychologists who understand that vulnerability is one of the key factors of success.

How might we create organizational infrastructure—policies, practices, processes, governance, values, and physical spaces—that invites us to share and compare our blind spots as easily as our new discoveries? Maybe it is time for a chief psychology officer, whose charter is to make bravery scale.

What you can do

Reduce your blind spots: There are numerous organizations that provide guidance, pragmatic insight, and concrete actions to follow. From personal experience, a great place to start is Project Include. In my article, "Weak Ties Matter," I write about using social network theory to recruit diverse members for startups.

The Golin public relations agency's Have Her Back campaign, and Hewlett-Packard chief communications officer Karen Kahn, are doing remarkable work using the leverage of huge ad budgets to increase representation of diverse team members in creative agencies.

What is your One Idea that could make a huge difference to your team or your company, or an issue you're passionate about? The one idea that you feel vulnerable sharing?

Take these steps:

  1. Write down your idea.
  2. Write about how you feel vulnerable.
  3. Include others: Share your idea, and how you feel vulnerable, with at least one other person.
  4. Take one action—with their help—toward voicing your idea.

Don’t wait; the world needs you.

Want to know more? During my Velocity Conference talk, "Infrastructure-first: Because solving complex problems needs more than technology," I'll offer more on why you need an infrastructure-first approach to innovate. The conference runs June 10-13 in San Jose, California.

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