Book Excerpt: Trust is Vital to Resilient Innovation Organizations

June 30, 2022

What is the top attribute an organization should have to help it soar? Preparedness—according to Deloitte’s 2021 Global Resilience Report, which surveyed thousands of CxOs globally.

Michael McCathren, a long-time leader in innovation, adjunct professor at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, and current Enterprise Innovation Lead at Chick-fil-A, knows just how important preparedness is to overcoming disruption and fostering growth for a “better normal.”

How can organizations prepare for what’s coming their way?

“The secret to being a prepared organization is to be an innovation organization,” McCathren says. “Becoming an innovation organization will help ensure [your] resilience.”

Michael McCathren, author of 6Ps of Essential Innovation and Enterprise Innovation Lead at Chick-fil-A

McCathren’s new book, 6Ps of Essential Innovation, is a masterclass in innovation that provides readers with a research-backed roadmap filled with actionable information and insights for anyone looking to level up an innovation organization.

In this exclusive excerpt from 6Ps of Essential Innovation, out on June 30, McCathren delves into an important aspect of people — one of his “6Ps” — and describes how leaders of the future will redefine trust through an innovation lens that leads to stronger innovation cultures and better results.


The “others” whom you should allow to influence your thinking beyond your innovation council of counselors should include your team. Regardless of years of experience, each of your team members is inherently wired to be a creative problem solver. Creating the right environment that unleashes breakthrough, innovative solutions begins with instilling trust among your entire team. This trust creates a safe and inclusive setting for idea sharing and solution finding. Trust, therefore, becomes a pivotal part of leading with an innovation mindset.

“Learning to trust is one of life’s most difficult tasks.”

—Isaac Watts 

In its 2016 global CEO survey, PwC reported 55 percent of CEOs think that a lack of trust is a threat to their organization’s growth.

Like humility, Trust is not a foreign concept. You are aware of the importance of establishing Trust as a leader. Doing what you say you will do and creating safe spaces for your team to be vulnerable are examples of traditional Trust constructs I’m sure you recognize. However, in the context of leading with an innovation mindset, Trust takes on a slightly different meaning than the traditionally held import.

Trust is at an all-time low. Research shows that interpersonal trust continues to decline. The percentage of people who believe “most people can be trusted” fell from 46 percent in 1972 to nearly 30 percent in 2014. We should expect the trending decline to continue. What impact might this have on your organization? In 2014, chances were that one out of every three people you hired did not trust you or each other. Projecting the trend farther into the future, it will be even fewer than that.

The value of allowing others to influence your thinking was established in our discussion of Humility. Think of Trust as an extension of that idea. Humility cannot exist without Trust, and Trust has no reason to exist outside of Humility. Trust, in the context of building a culture of innovation, suggests that you are handing over to others the responsibility to creatively solve problems of all kinds. You trust the people around you to leverage the innovation process properly and to experiment within its framework. You trust them to be curious, inquisitive, and thought-provoking. Like Humility, Trust behaviors must be modeled if they are to be adopted by the organization.

Within the context of a culture of innovation, Trust is defined as your pledge to consistently model a set of specific behaviors.

Hear New Ideas with a Curious Ear and Respond with Interesting Questions

My team can trust me to treat their ideas with honor, dignity, and respect in a place where they feel safe to share. Every time you can respond to an idea from anyone in your organization, you have the opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to transforming your culture into an innovation culture. Your response is evidence of your commitment. Leading an innovation organization with an innovation mindset requires that you reliably respond to ideas with only one thing — questions. Nothing communicates Trust like inquisitive probing about something, whether we are interested in it deep down or not. Even if you believe the idea may not be a strong one or is off strategy, asking questions about it usually leads the presenter of such ideas to either validate your assumptions or to disprove them, thus expanding your own innovative mindset.

Nothing communicates Trust like inquisitive probing about something, whether we are interested in it deep down or not.

The key difference in responding with questions instead of statements is that the person with the idea self-evaluates the quality of their idea through your questions. They arrive at the appropriate conclusion on their own instead of being told by you that their idea is strong or weak. They learn through experience and gain understanding of the characteristics of a high-quality idea by thinking through your questions and formulating appropriate answers.

Responding to ideas with questions instead of statements pays two huge dividends. First, more staff will be inspired to think about ways to improve their work and present ideas originating from their individual perspective. Imagine having your entire staff thinking about solving problems and seizing opportunities right where they are, instead of a select few, or worse, you alone. The result will be a greater number of ideas. The more ideas that may solve a particular problem, the higher the likelihood of finding one that ends up being a game changer. Second, the quality of ideas from staff will increase significantly.

They know you will interrogate them about their ideas by asking questions such as:

➤ What problem does this actually solve?

➤ Is this problem a symptom, or do you know the root cause of the problem you have identified? 

➤ Whose problem is this?

➤ How long has this problem been going on?

➤ Why has it not been solved already?

➤ What/who inspired this idea?

➤ What needs to be true about this idea for it to be a success?

➤ Who did you talk to or collaborate with to help refine this idea?

➤ What resources will be needed to launch this idea?

➤ How has this idea changed between the time you first thought of it and today?

➤ What other ideas did you consider but rejected and why?

➤ What would cause this idea to fail?

➤ Who would be on the team that could develop this idea further?

➤ In what ways can this idea be bigger, ground-breaking, or transformational?

➤ What conditions would make this idea fail?

Over time, your staff and your leaders will present higher-quality ideas because your questions will become their questions and they will more thoroughly assess their ideas before they engage in a conversation about them with you. The time invested in this one attribute of leading with an innovation mindset could pay big dividends.

Trust has positive and statistically significant correlation with the probability of becoming an entrepreneur. Trust leads to entrepreneurship, rather than the other way around.

Protect the Sharing of ALL Ideas and the People Who Share Them

Michael McCathren’s book, 6Ps of Essential Innovation, comes out June 30.

There will be no future repercussions to a team member’s reputation or career for sharing wild, outlandish, or opposing ideas. One of the biggest reasons why people who are new in their careers do not bother thinking about new and different ideas is the stigma that we have manufactured around ideas that are too far “out of the box.” Consequently, they might miss the chance to contribute an idea that could ignite transformation within their organization. The possibility that sharing one crazy idea might brand them for the rest of their career as a loose, undisciplined maverick will keep them from pursuing ideas that are off the map. Yet those are the types of ideas that push us to seek new, better, bigger destinations and result in breakthrough innovations. Remember, younger people tend to possess greater ability for developing transformative ideas. Their ability to think freely (within a framework) about big ideas (that provide business value) is the fuel that powers the future of your organization. Celebrate the outlandish nature of wild thinking. Remember too, that if you are open to hearing all ideas, without judgment, the ideas you hear may be wild, but they will exist within a framework of solid thinking.

Trust has positive and statistically significant correlation with the probability of becoming an entrepreneur. Trust leads to entrepreneurship, rather than the other way around.

Establish Idea Equity

I will always welcome analysis and feedback of my own ideas and acknowledge that once my ideas are spoken, they are no longer mine alone. They are to be evaluated with the same weight as all the other ideas from everyone else. One of the most difficult things we can do as leaders is relinquish ownership of our ideas. Remember, it is the voice of traditional leadership behavior that tells us we must be the sole originators of ideas. People who lead with an innovation mindset know this is not true. An innovation leader believes in the power of “we over me.” What would make you think your ideas are better than everyone else’s? (Reread the part about humility and being the expert.). Your ideas are likely not as good as others, and there’s a reason why.

The Innovator’s DNA introduces two essential concepts: Discovery skills and Delivery skills. What should be a balanced relationship between the two views is frequently unbalanced in favor of Delivery.

Discovery Skills: “The innovation skills of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting constitute what we call the innovator’s DNA, or code for generating innovative ideas.” These skills are found frequently in founding entrepreneurs and fuel forwarding-looking ideas. Unfortunately, over time (a very short time in some cases), the amount of work and the incessant challenges of maintaining the day-to-day operation of your organization demands that you exercise more Delivery skills than Discovery skills.

Delivery Skills: “Analyzing, planning, detail-oriented implementing, and disciplined executing…critical for delivering results.” You will likely find yourself so caught up in managing the present that you are unable to imagine innovative futures for your organization. There is no discovery going on. You are so busy living in the world of “what is” that you do not spend any time in the realm of “what if.” The result of that thinking is that your ideas are probably not as great as you think they are. When your team tells you as much, your response should be one of gratitude and appreciation for their honesty. They need to trust that you will receive their constructive criticism with grace and sincere appreciation.

Trust the Innovation Process

Even though as the leader I have the authority to do so, I will not circumvent the steps of the innovation process. I will model what trusting the process looks like. Any practicing innovator will tell you “trust the process!” The design thinking process has worked for thousands of years. It always has, and it always will, but I have seen many leaders compromise, water down, or altogether ignore the stages of the innovation process. This disregard is due to several reasons.

First, many leaders have a proclivity for action. They want to see things happen. For that reason, they have a tendency to ignore the Discover phase and begin with Design, then rush into Deploy — or go straight to Deploy. (We will discuss the Discover-Design-Deploy process in detail in a later chapter.) Another reason process steps are ignored is due to unrealistic expectations in deploying an idea. Personal ego can get in the way and push leaders to avoid prototyping or testing because they do not want the unexpected outcomes to reflect negatively on their reputation as a leader.

Do any of these scenarios describe you at times? If so, you are not alone. But if you desire to create an innovation organization, you must demonstrate to your team that following the process matters a great deal to you. You must overcome any temptation to compromise the process and show the organization that you will not exit one stage of the process and go to the next one until every aspect of that stage has been fully explored and the outcome validated. If others see you cutting corners, they will feel enabled to do the same and innovation will not take hold at your organization.

Trust allows difficult and challenging conversations about the status quo, new directions, strategy, and vision to take place in healthy ways. What doesn’t challenge us doesn’t change us.