Workplace Culture

Innovation Formula: Trust but Clarify

By Staff Report

Jan. 23, 2013

We just published a package of stories about how to manage the workforce for innovation, and it strikes me the new formula for success might be summed up in three words: trust but clarify.

“Trust but clarify” riffs off “trust but verify.” The latter phrase is really about distrust—President Ronald Reagan used it to explain his skeptical attitude toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. To a large extent, “trust but verify” also captures U.S. employer attitudes toward employees over the past few decades. Workplace surveillance, drug testing and rank-and-yank performance-review processes all embody a managerial spirit of suspicion.

But distrust as a guiding principle comes at a cost. Doubt drags you down as an organization, especially one trying to innovate.

“You have to create a high-trust culture because you need to take risks with innovation,” says Douglas Conant, who ran Campbell Soup from 2001 until his retirement in July 2011, in an interview with the story’s author, Todd Henneman. “In low-trust cultures, people are unwilling to lean into ideas because they feel it’s a high risk and they don’t have confidence that they will be appropriately recognized for taking those kinds of risks.”

One way to show trust in the pursuit of innovation is to give employees the ability to pursue projects of their own choosing. This sort of go-forth-and-explore policy produced 3M’s Post-It notes and Google’s Gmail service. Our readers agree this approach makes sense. In a recent survey, “Giving employees freedom to spend time developing ideas and projects” ranked as the second-most effective innovation strategy.

But trusting employees with autonomy ranked as just the fourth most-used innovation method.

Why aren’t more organizations doing the thing they say is effective? I suspect part of the reason is the remnants of distrustful management. Also, fostering creativity isn’t as simple as turning people loose one day a week.

This is where the “but clarify” piece comes in. Most employees—from front-line workers to R&D researchers to executives—benefit from guidance and collaboration. A number of the “discovery skills” described by Hal Gregersen, Clayton Christensen and Jeff Dyer in their book The Innovator’s DNA are profoundly social—including networking and questioning.

Managers, in other words, can help their people develop great new ideas by checking in with them. Invite questions, pose questions, forge connections to other people.

Leaders also have to be willing to shut down doomed projects or products—and to take stock of the effort. But the attitude toward failure should be one of reflection rather than judgment.

Hans Thamhain, a professor of management at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, suggests post-project reviews that let organizations acknowledge contributions and diagnose causes of failure.

“This helps to bring out lessons learned and helps to de-personalize issues,” he says. “It also leads to visibility and recognition of many of the interim accomplishments and benefits gained from the project that will be useful for other projects and enterprise missions.”

Too Pollyanna-ish? Not necessarily. It reflects the reality that failure is common and success often stems in part from luck.

Look no further than Google. It has had its share of failures over the past decade, including its 2009 flop Google Wave, which let users drag files from their desktops into real-time discussions.

Guess who created Google Wave? The same team behind the hugely successful Google Maps product.

At Google and other Silicon Valley firms that set the standard for innovation today, the “trust but clarify” ethos is common. Shouldn’t your firm consider adopting it as well?

Ed Frauenheim is Workforce’s senior editor. Comment below or email

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