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3 laws to create an innovative culture in your business

Aithan Shapira shares his three laws for creating an innovative company culture

4-minute read

Aithan Shapira spent 20 years as an artist, painting eight hours a day. As his skill grew, he started coaching other artists and became fascinated by the workings of creativity.

Shapira eventually did a PhD on the question and adapted his findings to the business world. He started a consulting firm, Making to Think, that has advised Fortune 100 companies on how to be more creative and able to change. He also teaches a top-ranked leadership course at MIT’s Sloan business school.

He believes creativity is more important than ever in today’s increasingly changing and complex environment. “Businesses need to increase their ability to change,” he says. “If they’re not changing, they’re not innovating. What artists have is a 3,000-year tradition of that practice.”

Shapira breaks down his advice into three laws for creating an innovative culture in your business.

Law One: There are limits and barriers to change

Shapira believes that businesses usually don’t need to become more innovative. They’re already innovative. But they’re probably not fully harnessing their innovative capacity.

“The goal is not adding innovation,” Shapira says. “It’s removing barriers that prevent us from creating. The limit to our innovation, to our future, is not technology or processes, but the person sitting across from me saying this isn’t going to work. This can make or break any process.”

Your personal growth enables the company to grow. You have to practice your ability to change.

The first step is to recognize the limits and barriers you and your organization need to change. Shapira calls this “the most challenging part” of becoming more creative.

“Change starts with you,” he says. “Your employees watch your ability to change. They’re watching you and want to support you. Your personal growth enables the company to grow. You have to practice your ability to change.”

Change can be sparked by a simple switch of perspective. To achieve this, Shapira uses a technique called analogous learning—getting a fresh view on your situation by drawing on other, similar contexts. “It’s a small way to move the centre of gravity,” he says.

Law Two: The ability to change accelerates when we feel supported

“Law Two helps eliminate Law One,” Shapira says. Support your team’s efforts to change and innovate by rewarding learning and giving them permission to do things differently.

When someone tries something new, Shapira says, “We ask, ‘What were the results?’ We want them to innovate, but we fire them if they fail. Instead, ask, ‘What did you learn?’ You want to chase the change. Not the success. The change.”

Shapira gives the example of Google’s celebrated innovation lab, known simply as “X,” or the “moonshot factory.” Lab personnel famously spend most of their time trying to break their own inventions and looking for weaknesses, learning as they go. “That’s the secret,” the lab’s director, Astro Teller, wrote in WIRED. “Run at all the hardest parts of a problem first. Ask cheerfully, ‘How are we going to try to kill our project today!’”

Shapira echoes this idea: “We have to say, ‘It’s not wrong, it’s different.’ What does wrong look like in a jazz band? It’s different-making, not wrong-making.”

Law Three: Complement increases change

It’s not enough to merely compliment efforts to change and innovate. You should also complement (note the “e”). In other words, add to the change to amplify and accelerate it.

“Only complimenting reinforces the status quo,” Shapira says. “Complement includes compliment. Appreciate something about it, then complement it. That’s how you build a culture that promotes change. In this way, you can lead others in their ability to change by complementing each other in a way that supports.”

This article was written following Shapira’s discussion with CEOs participating in the BDC CEO Excellence Retreat at an exclusive meet-and-greet session at C2 Montréal.

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