Innovation: The Critical Link to Trust

You know how sometimes you hear a theme every once in a while, and you don’t make much of it? But then you hear it five times in a week, and suddenly you say whoah, something’s going on here!

That’s how it is for me with trust and innovation. I have now seen enough about their connection that I notice it.

Got problems with innovation? R&D not giving you much bang for the buck? Suffering from same-old service offerings? Product un-differentiation got you down? Read on.

Observation: Pessimists Don’t Innovate, Nor do they Trust

In Why Victims Can’t Invent Anything, Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Viton suggest a simple test for the ability to innovate: the old glass is half full, half empty test. If you are optimistic, you are a creator.  If you are pessimistic, you are a victim. Guess which one wildly out-innovates the other?

Now marry that up with the profile of trusting and non-trusting people from Eric Uslaner, arguably the world’s leading academic expert in trust. Paraphrasing, high-trusting people believe that life is good, and that they are in control of their lives. Non-trusting people believe life is fundamentally unfair, and that other powers are in control of their lives.

You want to increase innovation? Hire optimistic, high-energy people; shun conspiracy theorists. And why does this work? Because they trust each other.

Diagnosis: More Trust Yields More Innovation

Let’s follow this logic further. Trusting each other means people are open to each others’ ideas. Robert Porter Lynch explains the link. 

Creativity happens, he says, very little by sitting around contemplating. Rather, it comes about from our interaction with others. In particular: people different from ourselves, who think in fundamentally opposite ways from the way we think.

If we’re not open to others—if our fundamental approach to others is fear-based, if we come from anger or ego or fight/flight responses—we shut ourselves off from the creative forces that come through sharing those different perspectives. We see them as threats.

The bridge is trust. If we can trust the other person, then we can hear and consider their perspectives, as they do ours. Net: communication, creativity, new ideas, innovation.

Trust and Innovation: Does It Work in the Real World?

Forget the thinkers: who does this? One who can speak to this directly is Ross Smith at Microsoft.  When in charge of the Windows Security Team, Ross and wingman Mark Hanson realized they had some incredible talent on the team that was under-utilized. They needed to innovate. As Ross studied innovation, he began to realize trust was the key to getting there.

Does it work for Ross? He’ll answer a resounding ‘yes.’

In the course of the next month, you’ll be hearing from several of these people: Eric Uslaner, Robert Porter Lynch and Ross Smith in particular, as well as others. I think you’ll enjoy reading what they have to say.

For now, let’s just notice what they all agree on: the road to innovation goes through trust.


0 replies
  1. James A. Boyd
    James A. Boyd says:

    Charlie, can I forward this to my congressman and Senators?  With all the problems yet to be resolved with health care reform, job creation and economic resurgence, the folks in Washington desperately need innovation and trust.  Whatever talent lies hidden in the halls of Congress (and I truly believe some is there), it will never produce positive results for the American people until freed from the bonds of political mistrust (you are automatically wrong because of who you represent)  and pessimism (this is already out of our control).

    Make it a great day.


  2. kathleen
    kathleen says:

    This would explain why the people I run across who are the most paranoid and obsessed with protecting "their" intellectual property, are also the same people most likely to be copying someone else. I joke about it all the time; I guess they want me to sign an NDA so I can’t tell on them.

  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Interesting comments, Jim and Kathleen.  You both point to the evil bond between mistrust and being untrustworthy.  Kathleen’s sardonic remark is exactly right, and Jim’s about we’ll never get trustworthy government until we’re willing to trust ditto.

    If you don’t trust people, or if you do trust people–mostly you will get what you expected.

  4. John W. Taylor
    John W. Taylor says:

    I have always heard that creativity shrinks with age.  Based on your comments above, I think that maybe children, even young adults are more trusting than us more "experienced" peoples.  How do you separate trust from being naive?  Is there a trade-off? 


  5. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    John, I don’t have research to your point about us getting less trusting, but I can make a few observations.

    No question children are more trusting, and therefore much more creative.  Somewhere in adolescence, I suspect, that changes.

    Prof. Eric Uslaner, perhaps the most respected academic in the trust arena, suggests that the propensity to trust is built in at an early age: it is cultural, inherited with mother’s milk, so to speak, and it doesn’t change much, or quickly.

    That’s our propensity to trust, not to be confused with trustworthiness.  Trustworthiness, on the other hand, can be changed–strongly and relatively quickly.  

    So I think the thing that changes is not our propensity to trust others, but our perceptions of others’ trustworthiness.  If we get to know people on a team, we come to trust them; and if those people are always working to be seen as trustworthy, that speeds the process.

    It’s trust that allows for innovation–not the propensity to trust.  

    Now let me add some data: from our own internal research on trustworthiness, one of the stronger findings is that people believe their own trustworthiness increases with age.  I believe that.  

    I think it is more situational than period-of-life based.  Maybe we get more fearful and cynical as we age, maybe the opposite is true.  But if we’re working in a group of people who behave in trustworthy ways, and if we have a reasonable propensity to trust in the first place, then we become more willing to trust those individuals–and hence more creative. 



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