Mohit Rao is Head of Intelligent Automation at Atlassian. He leads an IT team responsible for blazing an innovation trail through hyperautomation in order to free business teams from repetitive tasks and focus on higher-value work. Innovation, and how to create that space across a broader team and organization, is part of his directive.

There’s this belief that innovation is meant for certain people and specific moments of the year, like company hackathons, designated brainstorms, or team off-sites. Where did this belief start, and why is it so predominant? I don’t know. But I believe that it’s a hindrance. It stops people who don’t think they fit into that group from speaking up about their own innovations and creativity.

But I’m here to counter the narrative that creativity is designated for particular people and specific times. Based on my experience, people simply need to know that they’re able to be creative, are allowed to innovate, and will be supported when they do so. As a manager of an innovation team at Atlassian, let me pull back the curtain on the truth: An organization doesn’t need people with innovative superpowers or specialized skills to innovate. Everyone can innovate.

During my early years at Atlassian, we didn’t have many resources, so innovation – creating new ways of working and allocating time to develop new ideas – was part of almost every job description. And one of my first inventions was a single data platform for all things, which ended up being Socrates, Atlassian’s data platform.

5 ways to create an innovative spirit and culture

For anyone that wants to go beyond the quarterly hackathons, or for leaders who want to foster a culture of discovery, here are five tips that I’ve used to encourage my team to approach innovation differently.

1. Embrace that all teams are capable of innovation

Innovation isn’t limited to technological development. It can mean any new way of doing things by any team. In this regard, all teams are capable of innovation.

An innovative culture pushes teams to seek continuous improvement everywhere. It encourages a diversity of thought and constructive debate on what makes a good idea – all in the interest of creating better outcomes. However, I’ve seen that some people aren’t so excited during innovation events because they feel like they’re forced into something that takes them away from regular work.

So, how do we fix this? One way would be to make innovation part of their regular work to solve the problems faced in their day-to-day work. I believe that because innovation is integrated into their daily routine, people could easily redirect their energies and build up the metaphorical muscle to innovate as a matter of usual practice.

We need to stop treating innovation as something special. Innovation is not a magical process performed only by super smart people, nor is it something that always results in the next big thing. Innovation is nothing more than realizing value from working on a good idea.

Keep the ideas simple – not all ideas have to be new. Consider easy-to-adopt ideas that can be implemented fast and show value immediately.

One great example is Atlassian’s IT team at our Austin office. The team was bummed that the office wasn’t opening for a while because of COVID restrictions. Up to that point, engagement and participation in meetings had declined. And many sat on mute throughout Zoom meetings.

That’s when the team decided to work in a different way by using virtual reality (VR). Is it the way of the future? Only time will tell. Was it different and innovative? There’s no doubt about that. The team had fun adapting it, work became interesting again, and this new way of collaborating drove up engagement during meetings.

2. Create a space and culture of innovation

What does a culture of innovation really look like?

All organizations and teams can promote an innovative mindset by asking this one essential question: “Do we see any opportunities to improve something?”

This basic question can also give you answers to questions about becoming more efficient, creating accessibility, developing better workflow models, and embracing new tech.

At Atlassian, our mindset is that innovation can come from anywhere and anyone.

We expect answers from our experienced and verbose team members, but the newest and most junior members should also be encouraged to provide their perspectives. They’re fresh ideas after all. This is where hiring people with diverse skills, talents, and backgrounds can challenge the status quo and provide completely different views.

For leaders who want to kickstart innovative cultures, encourage your team to tell you their ideas. Start by creating different ways for your team to submit their ideas. It’s important to understand that people develop and share ideas differently. Some people feel comfortable sharing in face-to-face brainstorm meetings, while others may need time alone to think before submitting ideas in writing.

3. Recognize what successful innovation looks like

If your efforts are working, you’ll see that ideas are regularly generated, leading to new ways of working and continuous improvements.

During these exciting and successful times, failing fast is the norm. You’ll experiment on several ideas –and most of them will fail quickly. But believe it or not, this is ideal! Failing quickly means that you’re failing efficiently. And in the process of failing, you learn a lot for the next iteration of ideas.

Adding this time constraint to fail quickly can also encourage innovative ways to test ideas more efficiently. I suggest doing demos frequently and seeking real-time feedback from a lot of different people.

Most importantly, celebrate success and failure. Acknowledge innovative efforts to encourage creativity. For example, celebrate the process of innovation in failed experiments instead of just the pieces of work that result in tangible value. Bring a constructive attitude toward all ideas. Sometimes, it takes time for new ideas to resonate, so don’t dismiss ideas without considering them.

4. Continue to iterate when innovation stalls

In this scenario, you’ll see lots of ideas moving through the process, but few will return value. In other words, the funnel you created to invite ideas might be too wide. Sometimes, teams will spend too long with a failing idea trying to make it work. This is where I would remind everyone that fast failure is the goal.

As you consider ideas, be mindful that sometimes an idea may not be good at a given moment in time. Maybe the company isn’t mature enough or the technology may not be ready. If you’ve been experimenting with an idea for a while and it hasn’t returned value, shelve it for now and move on to the next idea. You can always pick it up later!

For example, Slack has an intelligent chatbot that Atlassian’s Intelligent Automations team iterated on to answer common questions in high-traffic channels. But at the beginning, no team had the bandwidth to train the bots – so the project was put on hold. Still, the work they did exploring, evaluating, and summarizing chatbot technology was invaluable.

After all, that work gave them the information and leveled up their expertise for when they evaluated chatbot technology for Atlassian products.

What’s the takeaway from that? Continue to iterate. In most cases, you can’t learn purely through theory or observation. Sometimes you have to try, fail, and try again. An idea that doesn’t succeed initially still provides a wealth of knowledge that can be used to evolve the next iteration of the idea.

5. Remember to embrace the process

No matter how big a company gets, everyone should still be able to innovate at an individual and team level. It’s pointless to develop a culture of innovation if you’re not going to embrace it going forward.

Whether you’re creating a space for innovation, celebrating the small wins, or getting teams to move past a stall in the innovation process, remember that as leaders, we’re there to nurture teams so that they can innovate. And we can empower everyone to think about better ways of doing things. In turn, this fosters curiosity and creativity to solve our unique challenges. By celebrating the successes as well as the failures, we can continue to support our team’s cultural roots of discovery and growth.

For more stories and tips on how Atlassian is innovating from within, check out the Connected CIO page.

5 tips on how to create an innovative spirit and culture