Ep. 275 - Karin Hurt, Co-Author of Courageous Cultures on Valuing Innovation, Curiosity & Productivity

Karin Hurt, Co-author of the new book, Courageous Cultures and Brian Ardinger, Co Founder of Inside Outside Innovation, talk about the difficulties and opportunities with creating a culture that values innovation and curiosity, and how companies can develop productive micro innovators. For more innovation resources, check out insideoutside.io.
On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Karin Hurt, Co-author of the new book, Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates. Karin and I talk about the difficulties and opportunities with creating a culture that values innovation and curiosity, and how companies can develop productive micro innovators. Let's get started.

Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast to help new innovators navigate what's next. I'm your host, Brian Ardinger, founder of InsideOutside.IO. Each week, we'll give you a front row seat to what it takes to learn, grow, and thrive in today's world of accelerating change and uncertainty. Join us as we explore, engage, and experiment with the best and the brightest innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneering businesses. It's time to get started.

Interview Transcript with Karin Hurt, Co-Author of Courageous Cultures

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today, we have Karin Hurt. She's co-author of the new book, Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates. Welcome to the show, Karen. 

Karin Hurt: Thank you so much for having me. 

Brian Ardinger: Karen, I am excited to have you on the show. I just got a chance to read through a preview copy of the book and excited to dig into that. Tell me a little bit about how you got interested in this particular topic.

Karin Hurt: Yeah. So, I run a company called Let's Grow Leaders. And we work with human centered leaders all over the world with practical tools and techniques. So we were noticing a consistent pattern. As we were going into organizations, we'd be working at the very senior levels of organizations. And we would hear things like why don't more people speak up. Why don't people share ideas? Why do I stumble upon a best practice? Why are people sharing them with one another? 

And then we would go into do leadership training at the supervisor level. And we would hear things like nobody really wants my ideas. Last time I spoke up, I got in trouble. You know, why bother nothing ever happens anyway. 

We thought, are you all working for the same company? So, you know, most leaders really do want ideas and employees have great ideas to share. So why was there this disconnect? 

So, we partnered with the university of North Colorado on an extensive research study to answer that question. When people were holding back ideas, what kinds of ideas were they holding back and what was preventing them from speaking up and sharing ideas to improve the customer experience, the employee experience, or productivity in a process. That's a little bit about why we got so excited about this research. 

Brian Ardinger: So, let's dig into it. What makes a culture courageous? 

Karin Hurt: You know, our favorite definition of culture comes from Seth Godin, the marketing guru, who just says culture is simply people like us do things like this. And so, when you're talking about a courageous culture, people like us speak up. They share ideas. The default is to contribute. People are coming to work every day saying, huh, how can I make this better. And managers are proactively going out and asking for those ideas and responding well when people share them. 

Brian Ardinger: So clearly that is not the case in a lot of organizations, at least the ones that I've worked with and have been around. It's not always courageous. What do you think makes it so difficult for people to speak their truth or overcome that particular fear? 

Karin Hurt: Yeah. So, Dr. Amy Edmondson of Harvard who wrote the Fearless Organization, you know, she's really a pioneer of psychological safety. And she talks about people are more likely to hold onto a negative experience than a positive experience. And that really played out in our research as well. 

We would ask people; we did a whole qualitative set of interviews in addition to the quantitative study. And we would say, okay, if you're holding back an idea, you know why? And they would say, well, because you know, something bad happened in the past. Was okay, how long ago was that?

And you wouldn't believe it. Sometimes people say, well about 10 years ago. And then we would say, well, was it at this company? Oh, no, no, no. I was away at some place completely different. But it was enough to teach them that speaking up is scary. So that's one piece of it. And then, you know, other things that came out in our research, 49% said, I'm not regularly asked for my ideas. Something as simple as that.

And when we got underneath that binding, the managers are saying, well, I told them I have an open door. And the problem with an open door is it's passive. And for some people, especially if they've had a bad experience in the past, it still takes some level of courage to walk through that open door. 

And another thing that people said, which the most surprising finding quite frankly for me was 56% said, they're not sharing ideas because of fear they will not get the credit. And, you know, as fascinating. As I've been sharing that statistic people like aha. Yeah, well that happened to me too. And  so, I think that really resonates with folks. And then another statistic that I thought was really interesting was 50% said nothing will ever happen. So why bother?

And sometimes that nothing will ever happen. Isn't actually true. Something has happened, but the loop isn't closed. Right? So, people think their idea went into this black hole, you know, and because we're not circling back. So, whether it's an employee survey, it's a suggestion box. It's in a one-on-one meeting. Are we closing the loop and what we call responding with regard to the ideas that are coming forward? 

Brian Ardinger: That's a fascinating insight, because I see that a lot when we talk with corporations and what are their innovation efforts. And a lot of them say, well, we're doing these hackathons. Or challenges and asking for employee feedback.

And that's great to do that, but what they fail to do is put the process in place and what to do with those ideas after they come through the funnel. And like you said, be able to either close the loop or have a process that moves those particular ideas forward. So, you don't have this environment where people throw things in and, and again, like you say, the black hole of nothingness. And they get discouraged to do it again.

In the book, you talk a lot about this loop between clarity and curiosity, kind of back and forth. Can you talk a little bit about that and why that's so important? 

Karin Hurt: Yes. So, when you're building a courageous culture, it really does start with clarity. And that's clarity around two things. One clarity that you really do want people's ideas. And we found this to be really, really critical as we were testing the different tools and techniques. Clarity about where you need a great idea. 

So, you know, not just going out and saying, hey, do you have any ideas to improve the business? Or what do you think we could do to improve productivity? That feels intimidating. Yeah. That's like, well, gosh, where do I start? I have so many ideas. 

So instead, if you say, can you tell me one idea that you have to and then fill in where your strategic initiative is. You know, to improve our diversity, equity, inclusion efforts. One idea to take this new product to market. One idea to go into this new customer space. One idea to improve the customer experience. When you can ask for that, and that constraint actually owns up the creative process. And then it's showing up with curiosity. And proactively going out and asking people for their ideas. 

And we have a variety of tools to do that. You know, one is simply asking courageous questions. And a courageous question is simply a specific and vulnerable question. So, one of my favorite comes from a client of ours. I've known Don Jaeger for 10 years, and he has been consistently asking this question and he's moved from a couple of companies, and he continues to do this. And it worked so well for him. 

He's the COO of his contact center company. What is one policy we have that just sucks. Now he's asking his frontline agents. The people answering the phones, who are talking to the customers all day long. He knows if they have a policy that is annoying the customers, those folks, the ones that are hearing it. And it's vulnerable because he's the COO.

I mean, he either has made the policy or is endorsing the policy, that's pissing off the customers. And so, he finds that when he asked that specific vulnerable question, Then he's got a conversation going, and then he says, oh, thank you. What else? And now it's created a safe space for people to share what else is on their minds? He's said this he's gotten a lot of really good insights around that. 

Another example of curiosity is teaching people how to vet their ideas so that they bring you better ideas. And one model that we use, and we teach in our training programs is our idea model, which is okay, when you're thinking through an idea.

Tell me why is this idea interesting, meaning strategically aligned with where we're headed as an organization or the project we're working on? D is it doable? Tell me why you think we could actually pull this thing off. E is an engaging meaning who else might we need to include in this? This is where you teach your team to think about stakeholders and then A, what are a couple of key actions recommended next steps to get started?

So, you know, if you were an employee and you were sitting here listening to this and saying, yeah, I have ideas, but I'm still a little nervous. If you went to your manager and said, gosh, you know, I really care about this team. I want us to be successful. I have an idea. Here's why it's interesting. Here's why it's doable. Here's who else? I think we need to include. And here are a couple of next steps. They still might not implement your idea, but you are going to show up as a critical thinker, team player, who wants to make an impact. 

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Brian Ardinger: One of the things that I've talked about in our practice is this idea of changing the mindset. Most ideas are quite frankly crap when they first start. You haven't figured everything out. It's new and unknown and that.

So, if you come in with more of a side project mindset. It's like, this is my side project, or this is my experiment that I want to run, it changes the framework. And a lot of times it gets rid of that fear of it having to be perfect to launch. Or having to be perfect to have that conversation with your boss and that. What's your take on that? 

Karin Hurt: I can, I agree with you more. I love that so much. You know, I'm always like, so just do a pilot. And, you know, I was at Verizon for 20 years and I led some really large teams there. And in one of those roles, I had a particularly change resistant boss. Like he just was super corporate. He didn't want to try anything different, you know, he's like, if it didn't come from headquarters, we're not doing it.

And that's not me. And I'm not happy leading in a role like that. And I had a big job. So, I was constantly saying, let's just try it in this one market. And let me prove it in. Let's just try it with a couple of our employees. Let's take a couple of our high performers and let them kick the tires on this thing.

Yeah. And that made it very, he's like, okay, but don't tell anybody you're doing it. Yeah. But then he was very happy to take it to headquarters when we proved it in. And so, I think that is a way to deal with that. And I'll say that even when we're selling in training programs to folks, I'm like you don't need to say you're going to train all of your leaders, just give me one team. And let me show you the impact and how this will play out in your culture. And that's really much easier for people to say, oh yeah, well, we could try that. 

Brian Ardinger: So, in your book, you talk about how you're trying to create micro innovators. These small, powerful people that can take action and do things. Is this something that you see courageous cultures being built from the ground up or top down or a combination of both. 

Karin Hurt: Mostly you need to go from the top down. For our first book, Winning Well was really more practical for the frontline managers to do this. To really truly create a courageous culture, you need to do all the things, right.

You need to be having very clear that you do want a culture of innovation. You need to be communicating that consistently five by five. You've got to have strategic priorities that people know where things are headed. Some of that can come from the top, right? With that said either you're a manager listening to this, or you're an individual contributor and saying, I would like to be a micro innovator.

You don't need to go out and declare, well, we need to build a courageous culture around here. Everybody should read Karin's book. No, just figure out where is one area of the business that could improve? And come up with a little idea. It doesn't have to be game-changing. It's just a little idea that would make things better.

How would you have less stress in your day, if one process was improved. How can you collaborate better and reduce the friction that you've got with this other department that's driving you crazy? You know, that's the micro-Innovation. And when you have a culture where more and more people are coming up with these little incremental ideas, they completely add up to build a more courageous culture.

Brian Ardinger: How do you start measuring your progress and success? How do you know if you are on your way to building that courageous culture? What things do you look at and what things can you measure? 

Karin Hurt: Yeah, so I would say one of the things that you really will see is you getting more ideas when you are in meetings, what is happening? Is it you're coming in with the agenda and everybody's listening to you and taking notes and doing what you say? Or are people saying, you know what, I'm not sure that's going to work. Or what about this? Could we try it this way? Or have an idea. 

And I think the quality of your ideas, because at first you might get a lot of ideas, then you're like, oh my goodness, why did we even open this can of worms? But over time as you teach people, what a good idea looks like, how to vet their ideas, how to articulate their ideas, how to, to your point pilot and test their ideas, you will see that happening. 

And then, you know, I think the other thing is the irony about a courageous culture is it takes less daily courage to show up because this is the way we do things around here. So, it doesn't feel courageous to raise my hand because everybody is raising their hand. 

So, I think that is one of the things. Now, where does it play out in business outcomes? Well, you're going to see ideas that improve productivity. That improve the customer experience. So, you see those metrics improve.

And from an employee engagement perspective, it will definitely improve retention because people will feel seen. And, you know, we have this one client we've been working with for two years now. And we have trained pretty much everybody. Every leader from the senior team to the VPs, to the Director in the revenue generating and the revenue enabling side of the business it's become cultural.

And one of the interesting things that they've told us is, you know, before we started working with you and really introducing this courageous cultures concept, the number one reason people were leaving was leadership. That's what they said in their exit interviews. Now it's not one of the top reasons people are leaving anymore. The cost savings of better retention is tremendous. 

Brian Ardinger: We are living in this new world hybrid world, or COVID, everything has literally changed the way every business is working. What are some of the trends or things that you're seeing and how can courageous culture play out as we evolve the workspace in general.

Karin Hurt: Yeah. So, a couple things that I'm seeing play out as I'm sure you are too, is one, is there is a deeper need for human connection. People are really craving it. There's been a lot of mental health issues. There are people who've been through a lot. We're all tired. And so, leaders need to be more attuned to that than ever.

And part of what we've seen as I've been watching good leadership and bad leadership throughout this time, is good leadership is really correlated to are people willing to show up and be authentic and a little bit more transparent than they have in the past. And I've watched people, managers who've showed up, you know, with their teams and said, I know this isn't easy. It's not easy for me too. 

Here's why, you know, why I know this is hard for you. Here's a little bit of a, what's been happening to me. But here's what I do believe. Now clarity. I believe in you; I believe in this team. And I know that we'll figure it out. Then curiosity. So, what ideas do you have as we've transitioned to working from home? What do you need? What's one idea that you have that could make you more productive while you're working from home? 

And so, it's that. It's that human, being, being human. And I think if there's any silver lining out of this whole mess that we've been in, it's that people are paying more attention to leadership. And to developing their leaders and understanding that you can't do it without the deeper human connection.

Brian Ardinger: Well and that's so difficult in a remote type of environment. Are there things that you're seeing that have made it easier for some companies to latch onto that? Or create that more intimate relationship even though a lot of them are remote.

Karin Hurt: So, the number one thing I would say is getting really great at one-on-one meetings. And not just phoning in the one-on-one meetings, where you show up, you have the same agenda every time, you know, and you just check it off. It's saying what does this person, this human being need most at this time. 

And so, you know, we talk about there's five different things that you could include in your one-on-ones. Are you having a connection one-on-one where you're just really checking in on a human level? Are you having a clarity one-on-one where you're really reinforcing strategic priorities? So, people understand what's most important right now in the sea of things coming at them. 

Are you curios? A one-on-one where you're going to ask them for their ideas. And so, thinking about each person on your team. And then how do you mix up the way you're doing the one-on-ones so they feel fresh. That they are serving the team. And I think if every manager could get really good at one-on-ones you're halfway there. Yeah. 

Brian Ardinger: Well, we have a lot of startup founders who listen to this podcast as well. Do you have any advice for companies that are forming new cultures and how to get it right early and avoid some of the pitfalls that bigger companies have fallen into?

Karin Hurt: Absolutely. And that's actually one of our favorites. We work with a lot of clients that are venture based, fast growing startups. And that seems to be a sweet spot because as you're growing fast, you get to that point and you're like, oh, we probably ought to be more intentional about our culture and the values and the behaviors.

And so, the things that I would say there is start by really defining what does success look like. And, you know, one way we actually do that with folks is we give people two pieces of paper and say draw the picture of what we're trying to be. Draw the picture of what we look like right now. And, you know, sometimes you'll see, especially with startups, the house is on fire.

Usually there's a house on fire somewhere in the room. Right. And we would like not to be that. We would like to be smooth and organized. Or you'll see, gosh, we're in a lot of silos when we were really small, we just got in a room, and we figured it all out. And now as we're growing, we've got unnecessary bureaucracy that is creeping in and we never wanted to be that way.

You can start there. And then you'd say, okay, what are the values? And not just, you can do this well, or you can do this in a way that's just not going to work very well. What are the values and don't just paint them on your walls or put it on your internet and call it a day? Then get really tactical about what are the behaviors both internally about how you're going to function and externally how you're interfacing with your clients or customers. And how does that play out?

And then you could even say, get, come up with some scenarios of, and we do this a lot with folks. What are these two values are in clash? Like if compassion for your employees, is in tension with a, you know, responsiveness value. How do you play that out in real life scenarios? 

And so, and just getting people to talk about that and then looking at every element from how are you hiring, how are you onboarding? How are you rewarding and recognizing? And are you building those values and those behaviors consistently. 

And the final thing I would add there because this happens most of the time, if there is a turkey who is not behaving according to your values, just because they were there with you from the very beginning, if they are destroying your culture and you keep looking the other way, everybody is watching that.

And you can say we value integrity, but if they're not operating with integrity, that is a problem. And some of our clients have had to make some really hard decisions of people that they cared about who were there at the beginning, but who could not behave consistently according to the values. And they have not regretted having to make that choice.

Brian Ardinger: It's about being courageous, right? Yup. Doing the hard things sometimes. Excellent. Well, Karin, thank you for coming on Inside Outside Innovation, to tell us a little bit about this. I, again, encourage people to grab the book. It's called Courageous Cultures. If people want to find out more about yourself or more about the book, what's the best way to do that? 

Karin Hurt: So, our website is letsgrowleaders.com and on LinkedIn. Love to connect with people on LinkedIn. Answer any of your questions. It's Karin with an I. Karin Hurt on LinkedIn

Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Well, Karen, thanks again for coming on to the program and looking forward to continuing the conversation as the years continue on.

Karin Hurt: Excellent. Thank you so much. It's been my pleasure.

Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.

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