Story Time: Innovation, Trust, and the Freedom to Fail
Our Story Time series brings you real, personal examples from business life that shed light on specific ways to lead with trust. Our last story proved that he who eats with chopsticks wins. Today’s shows how trust can impact innovation, productivity, and staff retention.
A New Anthology
When it comes to trust-building, stories are a powerful tool for both learning and change. Our new book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, October 2011), contains a multitude of stories. Told by and about people we know, these stories illustrate the fundamental attitudes, truths, and principles of trustworthiness.
Today’s story is excerpted from our chapter on making the case for trust. It vividly demonstrates how providing the freedom to fail, take risks, and build on others’ ideas increases a team’s ability to innovate.
From the Front Lines: A Trust-Based Business Unit
In 2005, Ross Smith became Director of an 85-person software test team within Microsoft. His team had great technical skills, passion, and excitement, but felt underutilized and unchallenged. Ross set out to improve innovation and productivity. Exploring options, they ran across a University of British Columbia study by John F. Helliwell and Haifang Huang that equated the impact of high organizational trust to significant pay raises in terms of creating job satisfaction.
The team suddenly realized that innovation required freedom to fail, risk taking, building on others’ ideas—all behaviors grounded in high trust. That cognitive snap, that a high-trust organization would address underutilization and latent talent, was the beginning of the solution.
In a high-trust organization, individuals could apply their skills, education, and experience at their own discretion. They could take risks and change processes themselves because managers would trust them. The question was this: how to do it?
Ross asked the team to identify behaviors they felt influenced trust, positively or negatively. They realized that trust was subjective, situational, and very individual, and there was no single behavioral answer. As a result, the team put together a detailed playbook describing simple principles with discussion about how to implement.
They also modeled risk-taking and trust-building by using games to approach problems; everyone was allowed to play, experiment, and fail.
Microsoft is a heavy user of metrics, for Ross’s team as well as throughout the company. The first noticeable difference was a higher-than-normal level of retention. After two and a half years, other things started to change dramatically—new test tools and new techniques were developed, and a high level of collaboration and partnership was working. Productivity numbers started to rise. As the project finished, the team was rated at or near the top across virtually every Microsoft productivity metric.
When Ross and several others from the original team moved to another division, they set out to introduce the trust-building ideas and practices which had worked so well before. Once again, they saw a high retention rate, a broader application of talent, and higher productivity numbers.
The metrics followed the changes in mind-set and behavior—not the other way around.
—Ross Smith (Microsoft), as told to Charles H. Green
Find out more about Ross’s experiments in management innovation and trust, or read his blog on productivity games.
Read more stories about trust: