Currently in the later stage of her PhD focused on the DNA of innovative organisations, entrepreneur Susanne van der Velden (pictured right) is remarkably capable at translating science into practice. The founder of Team up, a digital workplace platform that combines online collaboration and e-learning, Van der Velden has resolutely investigated the foundations of innovation. “What conditions need to be in place to create an innovative culture?, How do employees get together to create, share, and retain knowledge? How do they build from there and offer products and services that customers actually want? And, how do organisations that face huge crises still be agile and sustainable enough to increase their market share?”
Such relevant questions cannot be answered without a focus on “the human side of innovation”. In this interview, Susanne van der Velden shares her views on adapting to change, and creating a workplace culture where teams can learn and grow.
Gloria Lombardi: From your PhD on the DNA of innovative organisations, what theories can be applied to the reality of today’s workplaces?
Susanne van der Velden: The innovative organisations included in my doctorate studies show that there are a few things crucial to define and implement from the start. It’s vital to have a clear vision and strategy for innovation: ‘Where do we want to go? What do we want to become?’
Finding the right people is a priority too. Not only hiring employees with the right technical and professional skills, but also with the human skills that fit the culture. So, being very clear on the corporate culture is key: ‘What do you want from each other? What kind of collaboration and cooperation do we need? How transparent do we want to be with one another?’
Innovative organisations also managed to find the fine balance between creativity (being able to act and think freely), and knowledge codification (structuring and processing knowledge). It seems a paradoxical balance, but innovative companies highly value both elements.
Additionally, they invested in people – they kept training and developing their staff even when the market was in downturn.
Finally, in times of crisis, innovative organisations remain resilient. They developed an attitude of ‘Let’s not panic. Let’s see how we can make this work again’.
Putting the theory into practice sounds easier than it is. It requires determination and discipline to actually choose such a way of working. But when it is done deliberately and consciously, it pays off.
GL: Do innovative companies behave differently from other companies when it comes to developing technology and nurturing humanity at the same time?
SVDV: What did strike me the most during my studies so far, was the intentionality of innovative organisations. For example, a technical startup decided to invest 50% of their budget into their technology and 50% into developing the right type of organisation by setting the culture and the business model. This way, they were able to answer the question, ‘What are we going to do here?’ and progress in that direction. They developed a system for codified knowledge and, at the same time, short feedback loops that prevented repeat mistakes. The feedback loops were short enough to ensure that the organisation was able to prove the prototype product or process, test it and then iterate quickly.
The lesson is: invest as much in your organisation as in your core product.
GL: Could you share another example of an innovative organisation you were inspired by during recent years?
SVDV: Buurtzorg is a system for nurses who care for people in their homes. Historically, this organisation was very bureaucratic until they decided to transform their way of working. They planned and created a self-organised system and culture, with each nurse being responsible for their own neighbourhood. Consequently, they were able to grow very fast. They managed to keep the responsibilities where they belonged, at the front-line. They were also very transparent in communicating and educating people. They made a human-centric organisational design become the core of their entire business.
This case study has also been used in ‘Reinventing Organisations’, a book by Frédéric Laloux.
GL: How can companies adapt to change while encouraging their staff to develop their own skills?
SVDV: First of all it has to be a conscious choice. The change should be organised as a bottom-up and top-down movement. Everyone needs the motivation and the tools to make appropriate changes, but it is made more difficult by a lack of leadership.
It is about leading by example. Managers should be able to make their work more visible. Working Out Loud can be a great method to facilitate this. They should explain how they arrived at decisions, and welcome conversation. People want to understand why certain practices are better and more sustainable.
People need a clear and transparent culture that allows time and space for learning. The company must provide the right communication and inculcate the appropriate culture. A culture where people are treated as equal, where employees can find ways to work on their talent rather than a predefined set of competencies.
Finally, giving people the freedom to act for themselves, and to be responsible within their own domain. It is important to treat people as adults.
GL: Is there a leader who inspires you and your thoughts on innovation?
SVDV: I admire the style of Ricardo Semler, the CEO of Semco. His company became successful by putting its people in charge. He managed to do it during the late 80s, a time when many people in Brazil were not very well educated. He made sure all the basic human elements were in place. Semler encouraged the management of a self-organised company by setting responsibilities in every part of the organisation. Staff can decide on their own salary. They can decide what time to go to work, whether they should start building a new factory, where, and how. This model, I believe, should be developed in more countries. If it could be achieved then and there, why not now and here as well?
GL: What’s your view on how team collaboration will develop in the future?
SVDV: The need to be more agile and lean will become more mainstream among organisations. But, while this awareness increases, it will not make its implementation easier. We still have to find good, practical ways to implement these new ways of collaborating, and embed them to make them last.
This is what we are trying to do at Team up. We feel that collaborating is like breathing: you’re doing it all the time, but not always consciously. It takes awareness to improve it. Team up helps you to be more aware and deliberate while working together as a team.
Our online environment combines internal social tools with e-learning. On the one hand, employees can inform their team about their daily work and involve each other. On the other hand, they can easily access and act upon the content they need in order to extend their skills and knowledge. These two components reinforce each other. Employees are encouraged to be curious, to be responsible, and to enhance their collaboration skills. This leads to smarter teamwork.
We use this platform as the backbone for our scientific effort, analysing data to find out how to stimulate a culture of learning, and help employees handle continuous change.
GL: As a founder of a technology platform, it is, of course, great to hear your focus on the human factor of innovation. What are your thoughts on the role of communications when it comes to collaboration and innovation?
SVDV: Having good conversations is critical to collaboration. High quality conversation relies on our ability to listen: ‘Do we really hear what was said? Or are we already thinking of our reply?’
People should be given feedback in a positive and constructive manner. The culture, and processes, should encourage and support learning from each other. People should be empowered to be proactive – to solve problems at their level. People should be primed to handle things that happen, without blaming themselves or others.
New ways of working within the digital workplace should still support and complement the good old casual interactions that happen offline. The digital workplace reduces geographical constraints on relationship building, but our local colleagues are still vitally important to the local culture.
Finally, and most importantly, we must enable people to be responsible and accountable for their own personal and professional development, and their contribution to the organisation and to society.
While aware that human interaction can be ambiguous and difficult, it is still a crucial part of innovation and collaboration. My Professor, Henk Akkermans at Tilburg University, always says, “Innovation is never about new technology. It is about the human interactions and the way we organise stuff”.