Lessons learnt building an innovative culture at 4i

13 October 2017 ‐ 7 min read

With the world changing faster than ever, never has it been more important for organisations of all sizes to innovate in order to keep up with the changing landscape. In fact every single organisation’s unique selling proposition of yesterday is diminishing day by the day.

In order to prevent this, organisations need to find new ways to stay relevant and the only way to do this is through innovation.

October 2017 marks 9 years since I started building a software service business called 4i. The key to a successful software service business is to be faster, leaner and most importantly, more innovative in solving client’s problems than any other option available to them. With innovation in process, technology and culture being a key success factor for us, we have explored various initiatives to drive innovation. It is through these initiatives that I have come to the conclusion that bold leadership is the primary driver to create a culture that promotes innovation. My personal journey in leading boldly and creating a culture that drives innovation is by no means complete (nor do I think it ever will be), but it is through making mistakes that I have learned a few lessons. Herewith 4 key things that stand out for me when it comes to creating an innovative culture.

1. Culture is not created by perks (or toys in the office) -   Purpose creates perks that drives culture.

One of the oldest clichés in the tech industry is people trying to create an office like Google has created. At one point in our journey I spent a lot of time researching what Google’s office was like, thinking that creating a similar environment will create a similar kind of innovation and attract similar talent. In conclusion of this research, I tried to implement some of these things, all of them never lasting longer than a few months. The reason was simple - there was no purpose behind it other than trying to be like Google.

On the contrary, a few years ago as a startup that is cash strapped and not able to pay employees high salaries, one of our employees suggested that if we are not paying higher salaries, can we at least try and make people toasted sandwiches for lunch. The reason for this was sound, our purpose was to save cost, but also look after the well-being of our people. Now roughly 5 years later, the toasted sandwich for lunch has become integral to our culture. In fact, it has expanded into offering a host of more healthy options for staff - something that people look forward to daily.

Perks should always be aligned with purpose.

I have to admit that some of the perks we introduced were done due to my own insecurity of wanting people to stay, rather than doing it to achieve a certain purpose.

The lesson learnt is that perks should always be aligned with purpose. In fact I would go as far as to say that it is worrying if a company has perks which is NOT aligned to their purpose.

2. It is impossible to avoid losing staff when building towards a compelling vision.

I believe that a culture of innovation requires a vision so compelling, that individuals working for that organisation are willing to align their own values and beliefs to that of the organisation. When this happens, it levels the playing field and no single ego can dominate a conversation or process. If everything we do is pulled back to a vision that we all agree to and buy into, it’s nearly impossible for an ego to pull the organisation in a different direction.

This is fundamental to create an environment where the best idea wins and where all employees feel valued and empowered. Without this, I have found it is nearly impossible to create the kind of innovation that takes an organisation forward.

One should not be afraid of losing “key” employees when their expectation and requests goes against the vision of the organisation.

Naturally not all people are willing to work in such a vulnerable state, even more so, some people simply might not buy into your vision.  Early on in my business, I tried to accommodate skilled  employees’ requests to change the working environment, process and salaries. And even though I have always tried to listen and incorporate feedback where applicable, what I realised is that from time to time, these requests infringe not only on the vision of what we are trying to achieve, but more importantly, disturbs the balance that is so crucial to maintain empowerment.

The lesson learnt  is that one should not be afraid of losing “key” employees when their expectation and requests goes against the vision of the organisation.

3. Solve the right problem often means being brutally honest with yourself.

This was personally one of the hardest things for me to work on. I believe it is human to take shortcuts and optimize, afterall that's how we have advanced to where we are today. However this positive human attribute has a dark side that can make passing the buck the norm. When our business went through trying times, I had no choice but to eventually admit my own shortcomings and mistakes and in doing so made me realise that for various struggles the business faced, we were avoiding problems instead of sorting them out. One example is how we tried to get teams to take more ownership. This lack of ownership became an easy scapegoat for sub par delivery or being late on a project. However, when I had to confess that them not taking ownership is my fault (as their leader of the team), I started digging into why this is happening. The fundamental reason why people weren’t taking ownership was because they weren’t treated as owners. We had fixed working hours and managers checking up on people. In fact our process reminded more of an industrial revolution factory than it did of a new age innovative digital company. To solve the problem, it meant we had to extend trust and expect ownership which was the responsibility of leadership.

Failing or shortcoming of the team is ALWAYS the leader's’ responsibility

The lesson learnt is that any failing or shortcoming of the team is ALWAYS the leader's’ responsibility. In fact for every single problem or challenged faced in our company I can find a way how leadership could have avoided it, or how leadership can improve the situation.

4. Creating an innovative culture takes effort, discipline and time.

In my experience creating an innovative culture is all about creating an authentic working environment. Creating such an environment from scratch is hard work in itself. What is even harder work is changing the mindsets of an existing organisation and as the size of the organisation increases, it becomes exponentially more challenging. The reason for this is that changing the environment involves changing individual mindsets and this comprises of two things: communicating this, but most importantly, setting the example. Showing this example takes discipline and sometimes a lot of time.

When we crafted our vision, I had to re-align my own habits and behaviour and in doing so show through MY behaviour what the right way of doing this was. One of the things I found particularly challenging was inviting people to voice their opinions and give input. Being a startup founder and having played all the various roles in the business, my experience gave me the confidence to simply tell people what to do. This was not creating an environment where ownership and empowerment thrived. In fact, all I did was create a culture that demanded my input on every key decision that gets made. This is not scalable and it limits the innovation of the organisation to my own ability and not the collective ability of the highly creative individuals we employ. In order to change this, I had to work on myself and execute the required discipline to hold back when I want to jump in and give answers. To be honest, this is something I still battle daily and believe it will be an ongoing battle as I keep fighting my ego from jumping in and ruining our culture.

Culture is the key ingredient in building an organisation that is innovative both on the inside (process, structure, ways of work) and on the outside (the products or services it sells to the world) and bold leadership is the only catalyst that can inspire this change.