Creating an Entrepreneurial Culture of Optimism

Companies that innovate well often share in common a culture of optimism. This type of culture exemplifies a company's belief that its employees are extremely capable and serves as fertile breeding ground for extraordinary innovation and entrepreneurial spirit.

In his book "Weird Ideas That Work," Bob Sutton describes the notion of certain success as "irrational optimism." While irrational, it's effective, for two main reasons. First, there is proof in the hundreds of studies on self-fulfilling prophecies, which state that if you believe great things will happen, the odds of success increase (and vice versa). Second, irrational optimism creates a better work environment; unless you're a Scrooge who feeds on negativity, it's more fun to work with optimists than pessimists.

Here's what I propose: If you're leading an innovation or research & development department or are on a similar team, apply the mindset that everyone in your group will do something extraordinary this quarter. Set up your team to succeed, and they will. Below are 10 more things you can do to propagate a culture of optimism at your company:

1. Create a "we're all in this together" attitude. Strive for a zero-tolerance policy in response to cliques. To recognize this type of behavior, flash back to high school: Did you ever find yourself in a clique, or excluded by one? The problem with a clique mentality is that people inside the clique constantly scrutinize those on the outside. This behavior is different from feedback, critique or direction; it's social hierarchy at its worst and a symptom of an unhealthy organization. For a company to succeed, its employees need to create and work in a positive and safe atmosphere in which they feel consistently supported by their boss and coworkers.

2. Mix up project teams. Look at your organization's past work: Do you use the same teams for multiple projects? I'm always amazed at how much I learn when I have the opportunity to work with someone new. Mixing up teams can create successful combinations that may not be initially obvious. Additionally, breaking up the best teams and dispersing their members among new ones will create even more great teams.

3. Do a better job of sharing work throughout your organization. Innovation is ongoing, so take time each week to let people share knowledge from their past projects. Make it a simple round-table discussion, but let folks share what they've done and learned. This is a great way to leverage past learnings and to give employees a chance to take pride in their work (which boosts esteem and lights a fire under them to start the next project).

4. Add a new method of measurement to employee reviews. IDEO alum and innovation consultant Maya Powch calls it "Company Citizenship." Traditional reviews focus on contributions to the company in terms of commerce and content. Think about what a discussion around contributions to culture or citizenship would mean and how it would affect your employees' outlook and behavior.

5. Create more "bumping into" spots that enable folks to run into each other and share work and ideas. I'm impressed with what Al Bolles, SVP of Research & Development at ConAgra Foods, has done. He redesigned a large connecting hallway in the company's innovation wing to feel more like a cafe. Folks "bump" into each other more frequently and exchange ideas on a much more regular and unencumbered basis.

6. Throw an annual Innovation Awards evening. I'm always amazed at what a phenomenal job the movie industry does of celebrating itself. Why not do something fun and celebratory that gets employees thinking, How am I going to do something great this year? Mattel holds an annual Inventors' Dinner that's very inspiring and well orchestrated, and that leaves its attendees feeling both appreciated and motivated to do great work.

7. Demonstrate that it's OK for employees to fail. Companies that only reward success don't fully understand that to succeed, you must first fail a number of times; false starts are normal and should be acceptable. Individuals need to feel protected, as they can become conservative and fearful of experimentation if success is the only thing for which they're rewarded. Again, think about what is being measured. George Kemball, director of Stanford's Design School, incorporates the tenet of "fail early, fail often" to encourage students to achieve success sooner in the curriculum. Bob Sutton lists as one of his core organizational beliefs that "the best single question for testing an organization's character is: What happens when people make mistakes?"

8. Make sure everyone gets credit for their work. This sounds incredibly simple, yet I find that a surprising number of companies have a top-down mentality, wherein bosses are commended for work they delegate to others. Giving credit to those who deserve it can be as simple as including everyone's name at the end of a report (think movie credits). Another way to achieve this is to let more junior people make presentations, so that the team leader/Chief Creative Officer isn't always in the limelight.

9. Celebrate — spontaneously! A breakthrough moment, a closed deal, a cleared patent — whatever the occasion, don't let landmark moments slip by. Bing Gordon, chief creative officer and co-founder of Electronic Arts, has been throwing spontaneous project celebrations over the years that have now become part of the company lore.

10. Believe that your company has an entrepreneurial culture of optimism, and talk about your organization that way, both internally and externally. It's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but that's the point. Think about how you'd feel if it were your first day as a new employee in your group. What would you like to hear about the way your new company does business?

Brendan Boyle is a partner at IDEO, a worldwide design and innovation firm. He is a consulting professor in the mechanical engineering department at Stanford University. You can reach him at