Leading Innovation Through Trust

December 7, 2023
Mo McCanna

As seen in the December 2023 Issue of the International Parking and Mobility (IPMI) Magazine.

With December’s issue covering “Stories of Innovation,” I was tempted to speak to some new technology or unprecedented research in HR. However, the connection between HR and innovation that resonates with me most are the conditions that allow teams to successfully innovate. While we move forward through new discoveries, we can also support these discoveries and innovation by returning to the basics of strengthening team dynamics, like establishing a culture of trust.

According to Harvard Business School Professor Dr. Linda Hill, “Innovation is a journey. It’s a type of collaborative problem solving, usually among people who have different expertise and different points of view.” She adds, “Individuals in innovative organizations...understand that innovation rarely happens unless you have both diversity and conflict.”

For folks with different perspectives to participate in this collaborative problem solving and productively share constructive feedback, there must be an open and accommodating audience encouraging them.

What does trust look like?

Working for a tech company creating new products and meeting customer needs, innovation—one of our core values— and iteration are key to our success and, therefore, so is trust.

I joined my company in mid-September and, in my first couple of weeks, met with everyone individually to learn about their work, motivations and overall experience at the company. Trust was mentioned throughout these first 1:1s and it became clear that this culture had been built very intentionally.

Below are some quotes pulled from my conversations along with explanations of how they represent trust which, in turn, supports innovation.

“We want people who will breathe life into their roles.”
“Leadership respects us as professionals and adults.”

As we grow as a company, upholding our values and maintaining a strong culture is critical. We know that technical skills can be taught, so with each of our hires, we prioritize character and soft skills in finding the right match. Leadership trusts that each new hire will add value to our culture and bring ideas and feedback to our product and team. Upward reviews from direct reports to managers during our performance check- ins are an important way to hear all voices and continuously improve, although that is not the only context where leadership hears feedback: “My direct report will tell me if my idea is a bad one. They’ll tell me when I’m wrong.” This is truly a testament to how managers welcome and encourage two-way feedback.

Additionally, leadership does not micromanage. A flexible workday, where people set their schedule based on when they can log on and be most productive, demonstrates trust within our team. What matters is that we produce quality work, not the hours when it gets done.

Steve Jobs is known for saying, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” This is exactly the mentality I’m grateful to see in practice as our leadership hires and manages our team.

“This is the best group of people I’ve worked with. There’s comfort and empathy. It’s refreshing.”
“Everyone is super supportive, respectful, trusting.”
“I have a feeling I could reach out to anyone for any problem.”
“We want to build a team of great people who love working together.”

Trust and respect go beyond each other’s professional contributions and show on a personal level. We lean on and support each other through valleys and celebrate the peaks at work and realize that life is about much more than our careers. We share about weekends, send silly memes, and encourage each other to log off and enjoy life away from our desks.

“You don’t have to read between the lines with this team.”
“Resentment can breed if there isn’t communication.”
“People are careful about the words that they choose.”
“Tell us about a time when you made a mistake.” (Interview question)

Another core value along with innovation and collaboration is transparency. The trusting environment described by the quotes from my listening tour leads to a robust sharing of ideas, challenging each other and embracing mistakes—a given when taking risks and experimenting with innovative ideas—as an opportunity to learn and grow. From all-hands product brainstorming to 1:1 conversations, teammates respectfully speak their mind. We communicate because we trust each other, and we trust each other because we communicate. And this communication leads to innovation in improving our product and team.

Creating a trusting team

If you’re looking to grow innovation in your business, start with establishing trust and modeling transparency. Ask questions, listen, and learn from your team, regardless of their title or tenure, and genuinely consider the perspectives and suggestions they offer. Give autonomy and flexibility. If you demonstrate trust in your people, the vast majority will step up and exceed your expectations. If you create safe spaces, most will lean in and speak up. And not only will this sense of trust foster innovation, but it will also benefit the business by increasing retention as team members feel valued and treated as the brilliant adults that they are.

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