How do you cultivate an environment that’s ripe for innovation?

Create a space for discovery.

Discovery is finding what was once hidden. In today’s hyper-connected, information-overloaded world, that’s more difficult than ever. Pretty ironic, right? So much information at our fingertips, but the needle in the haystack is as ellusive as ever. Real discoveries are no easier, and no less time-consuming.

We often think technology will be the answer, with complex algorithms and sophisticated bots to help us parse for answers – or the answer. And, of course, technology helps us make discoveries. But technology’s not the most important element on the discovery journey.

Actually a few simple practices – human to human – can increase the likelihood of an “a-ha!” moment more. Not sure what I mean? Then read on! (And I’ve got some tips for you.)

From sharing a little more about yourself, to giving a sneak peek of a new idea, these six tips will help you cultivate a culture of discovery.

1. Share something personal about yourself, or ask a teammate something personal about themselves

For some, this will seem obvious. But for many others, it’s not. And the thing is, the upside is huge. You’ll discover new connections with your teammates that makes your work relationship even stronger.

It doesn’t have to be some “deep dark secret” either. Just knowing basic information, or “irrelevant” (for work, that is) personal details about a teammate can serve many purposes. By striking up a more personal conversation, you’ll connect better on a more personal level. This doesn’t just feel good, it helps you learn how to work with them better.

The best part is, the more you and your teammates make this a practice, the more it encourages more authentic interactions. And team research tells us that when people feel safe to be themselves, trust increases, and the team is more effective.

Pro tip: Get to know your new hires

At Atlassian, we ask all new hires to write something about themselves and share it on our internal wiki, Confluence. The introduction blog is a simple but sacred practice we use to help Atlassians be open about who they are, how they work, and what matters to them.

2. Share a plan or idea with another team before it’s fully baked

You may discover new insights!

Yes, it’s hard to share unfinished work with others. What if they think it’s a silly idea? What if they ask questions that we don’t know the answers to?

A-ha! That’s the point! You can avoid many pitfalls by sharing your work early and often, instead of sinking time, money, and resources into a project that’s heading in the wrong direction.

On a small scale, assets like wireframes or important slides can be used as prototypes for a website or a keynote presentation.

On a larger scale, the concept of “eating your own dog food” is used in many companies. It allows employees or a select group of customers to test products before they’re ready for general release. It’s invaluable for soliciting feedback and finding kinks or bugs. The improvements you can make early on mean that paying customers receive the best possible experience.

Want an even bigger example? How’s this: NASA is a paragon of sharing ideas, plans, and projects well before they’re ready for launch. In fact, much of their work is speculation, models, and tests that can’t be replicated until the final launch date. How much of our knowledge would be lost if NASA kept their ideas to themselves? Instead, they share their research far and wide – partnering with space programs from other countries, sharing and borrowing insights from universities, and coming up with innovative ways to simulate the environments they’re exploring.

Try it out! Share a draft, a sketch from your notebook, or ask for a code review. When you receive feedback early, you can make improvements early.

3. Highlight something your team does really well and scan your organization to see if other teams can benefit from that practice. (You might discover other teams follow suit!)

Why share information?

  • Information from one team might really impact a sister team’s strategy.
  • A moonshot idea from a smaller team can draw the attention of senior leaders and inspire conversation, or even alter the company strategy.
  • Ideas being investigated only at a company level might change how a product team is envisioning their strategy, fostering better alignment and potentially saving resources.

Passing along solutions that can be helpful to another person or team is a practice that shouldn’t be overlooked. Note that tenure, level, or team affiliation aren’t barriers for good collaboration and feedback.

At Atlassian, we’re proud that we intentionally solicit a wide and diverse range of viewpoints. (Sometimes, too many!)

For example, a product designer applied her professional approach to product design to solve a personal problem: ensuring her natural, curly hair was healthy. She shared the steps of defining the problem, testing and iterating on solutions, and continuously reviewing feedback to settle on a sustainable, effective routine. And by sharing her process and results, she was also able to shed some light on some identity issues related to hair care, fostering broader understanding and empathy.

We also encourage our teams to copy each others’ work. Why reinvent the wheel when another team has created something useful? One team member shared her experience of using the Team Playbook to create her project plans and run retros. Instead of starting with a blank page each time, she saved hours of time by re-using another team’s template.

4. Ask people to wear the hat of a customer or someone from a different team, and ask them to prove you wrong about something

The story of the toothpaste factory is a common one in business, engineering, and operations circles. A toothpaste company was shipping boxes without the tube of toothpaste inside, frustrating distributors and consumers, and harming their reputation and revenue. To solve this problem, leadership embarked on an expensive and time-consuming journey to collect data on why boxes were being shipped empty. They brainstormed and vetted potential solutions, then piloted a new solution, and reviewed the results.

After spending millions of dollars on the large-scale project, they also added scales at the end of the production line to make sure the boxes included toothpaste by weighing the boxes as they came off the line. They expected the scale to identify some empty problematic boxes but, they couldn’t replicate the problem! How had the production line magically cleared up the empty box error?

The CEO took a walk down to the production floor to investigate these statistically unlikely results. Unbeknownst to him, someone had placed a $20 fan in the middle of the line, blowing the empty boxes off the line before they reached the scales. The fan effectively thwarted the empty box problem because only full boxes made it to the end of the line to be weighed at the end.

The fan was such a simple solution: effectively removing the problem before it occurred in a faster and cheaper way. It turns out that solutions can come from anywhere in the company, and that taking a different perspective to consider a problem makes all the difference. Many teams get bogged down in “the way we’ve always done it,” and refuse to change. They gather like-minded individuals into a room and attack problems from the same angle. But how would a writer solve this math problem? How would a statistician approach this landing page? How would a user engage with this product? Asking each person to step outside their usual frame of reference, or actively inviting people from different teams or with different skillsets to your brainstorms, enables you to turn a problem on its head to discover a new solution.

And, if you’re practicing tip #1, inviting different people to your meetings and receiving their feedback is much easier!

5. Share a recent failure and what you learned with your team

You might save others from making the same mistake. Because the real power in acknowledging failure is so others can learn from it.

Now let’s be honest: this isn’t “fun.” No one wants to mess up and then share it for the world to see. But just like we heard a million times growing up that “We learn from our mistakes!” we know that doing this will make us smarter and better the next time around. So anything you can do to encourage open sharing of mistakes is going to make the whole team better.

6. Even when you’re ahead of the game, or think you are, question it

You might discover you still have a lot to learn.

As we know, there’s always room for improvement, and a Health Monitor is the perfect way to make sure your team and projects are on track.

Not sure what a Health Monitor is?

It’s like caring for your team’s work as you would your body’s health: with honest, detailed check-ins your team will continue to be healthy, just as with proper nutrition and exercise, you will continue to be healthy.

Questions like, “Does this project have a full-time owner?” and “Do we agree on what success looks like?” offer super-valuable insights into whether or not your team is on the same page.

It’s also smart to question “how it’s always been done,” because what got you here might not get you there – if you see what I mean. Consider looking at the “4 Ls” on a regular basis with your team:

  • Loved
  • Loathed
  • Longed for
  • Learned

If there’s an activity that you loathed, reconsider whether it’s necessary to keep. How can you find ways to apply your lessons to future projects? What did you love, and how can you make space to do more of those things?

These are not one-time check-ups, they’re essential for ongoing team health. Even the healthiest of teams can raise the bar on their performance.

Consider these ways to foster a culture of discovery on your teams and in your organization. You’ll be surprised not only by the new pathways to innovation but the camaraderie and connection created among teammates and colleagues is the stuff of legend.

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