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For most startup founders, risk-taking is in their blood. After all, you have to have some serious guts to take a small seedling of an idea and turn it into a full-blown business venture — despite all the known risks and failure rates. That’s not necessarily the case for your employees. It makes sense that you’d have more “skin in the game” about a business you started than they would.
Still, it’s not impossible to create a company culture that encourages workers to cozy up to ambiguity. No industry is immune to rapid disruption, which means the strategies you’ve employed to grow your business to this point may not be the same ones that work tomorrow.
Perhaps Okta co-founder, Frederic Kerrest, said it best in his new book, Zero to IPO: “If your company’s culture doesn’t encourage taking calculated risks — trying out unproven features, or innovative marketing strategies, or unconventional pricing ideas — you’ll never [grow it to be 10 times larger than your original valuation] in the short amount of time you have to work with.”
Related: Take the Risk or Lose the Chance
Building an environment ripe for risk-taking
I found that my employees were more connected to their work when they were allowed to leverage their own creativity and unique perspectives. According to a Salesforce survey of more than 1,500 business professionals, when an employee feels heard at work, they’re almost five times more likely to give it their all.
The big question, of course, is how you cultivate a culture like this. Unfortunately, there’s no foolproof formula because culture isn’t something you can see, touch, or smell — it’s something you feel. Furthermore, this isn’t a light switch you can turn off and on at will; it’s a skill that must be practiced.
Reframing your team’s relationship to failure is an important first step to creating an innovative culture. Luckily, it’s possible to defuse that fraught relationship by normalizing its use as a tool for progress. One key step is to normalize failure as inevitable in growth.
Spanx founder Sara Blakely learned this from her father, who encouraged her to try new things and face discomfort by asking her, during every dinner, what she failed at that day. Another method is looking at failure as an opportunity to learn. As long as we derive information that we can apply to our next try, we add value and knowledge within our team, which is always a win.
Trying new things is already difficult — but it’s especially hard when your compensation hinges upon the bottom-line profitability of a division. In many cases, existing business structures such as compensation models prevent new ideas from ever seeing the light of day. So ask yourself: What kind of norms exist within my business that might make it hard for my employees to give oxygen to new ideas?
At our company, we hold new-hire welcome calls, and I always share an invitation for them to be curious and challenge anything, including norms at the business. To further that invitation, we hold contests for our team to submit their boldest ideas and commit to choosing some to invest in throughout the year, which challenges an all-too-common norm in business that impactful ideas must come from the top. One result was our highly impactful mentorship program.
Take a note from organizations such as Kohl’s, Capital One and Amazon and separate your innovation lab from the core business to shield it from innovation killers. Providing a safe place for experimentation is another way to break down barriers to innovation.
Bring in outside perspectives
Your employees might not be feeling inspired for any number of reasons, but it’s important to understand that it’s not so easy to go from the day-to-day minutia of work to big, bold innovative thinking.
Consider inviting over a partner or consultant to show people what that big, bold innovative thinking looks like. An outsider will be able to introduce new angles that can help employees unlock things within themselves. Some of the greatest innovations we’ve seen over the past several years are the product of partnerships. Apple and Mastercard, for instance, teamed up to bring Apple Pay and the Apple Card to market.
As an entrepreneur, you know that risk-taking is just part of the gig. How can you persuade your employees to get on board, too? It starts with culture every single time.