Three Steps to Building a Learning Culture That Delivers Innovation

To create technological solutions for grand challenges, companies must foster cultures that support continuous learning and team optimism.

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Many of the biggest, most daunting challenges of our time need technological solutions as quickly as possible. And all over the world, there are teams of scientists, engineers, and business leaders looking to create those solutions. But it takes more than expertise, hard work, and determination to come up with them. It takes a culture that supports continuous learning and daily experimentation.

I know this from experience. Over the past 10 years, my team and I at Wi-Charge have been on a journey to create something that long eluded scientists: true wireless power. We committed to doing so in a very different way from other attempts — one that would be cleaner and greener.

From the beginning, we knew that our goal might not be achievable. Other groups were working to create wireless electricity using radio frequencies that send out broad signals, only a bit of which is captured and used for power. All that wasted power can be environmentally damaging. We wanted to instead create a way for electricity to travel through the air via infrared light, which is more energy efficient and directable. We imagined that with an infrared system, virtually all of the power emitted could be captured by a device and used for power.

The building blocks to make this happen did not exist. Infrared light is abundant all around us, but it had never been used to carry electricity through the air. We would have to start from scratch and spend years engaged in trial and error, working to create the microscopic particles that would allow this to happen. We would have to keep challenging ourselves, learning about the latest advancements in nanotechnology, and drawing lessons from many failures.

Now that we’re on the other side, with our system up and running in retail outlets, helping to reduce e-waste (such as cords and batteries), we’re able to look back and see what it took to get here. While the skills of our team were essential, the biggest reason we ultimately succeeded was our culture of continuous learning. Three steps in particular allowed that culture to thrive.

Let Go of Ego

The team I oversee is made up of highly driven, well-trained, brilliant engineers. With that kind of brainpower, it can be especially difficult to let go of egos. But we recognized early on that if we were to get along and operate with synergy, we couldn’t let anyone’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance get in the way.

This meant setting the right example from the top. Those of us in charge made it clear that no one was there to prove themselves; they all had the skills and work ethic to be valued. To make this part of the team mindset, we openly talked about our own struggles. In team meetings, we discussed the things we were having trouble figuring out. The other executives and I did this as well, telling our teams about our failures. This form of sharing helped to build authentic connection and camaraderie.

The more we shared our setbacks, the more we were able to help each other. When people hear what their teammates need to figure out, they often realize that they may have ideas themselves. This sharing also dropped any sense of competition. We were not trying to prove our capabilities to one another. Instead, we offered one another encouragement to face each day and come up with another new experiment.

Build Long-Term Optimism

At Wi-Charge, we are fortunate that our CEO, Victor Vaisleib, is an eternal optimist. He always sees a bright future. By following his example and working to keep spirits up across our team, I discovered that long-term optimism is a skill that can be learned.

Much of this comes down to explanatory style. As medically reviewed research from Verywell Mind reports, optimists tend to emphasize that setbacks are only temporary; that when things go wrong, it’s because of external forces, not the fault of people trying their best. For optimists, a failure in one area does not make a failure in other areas any more likely. Our CEO modeled this optimism in his leadership approach, which encouraged me and others on the staff to embrace this perspective.

Of course, there is such a thing as too much optimism. Some level of pessimism can be a good thing, helping people make their predictions and expectations more realistic. The long-haul optimism that helped us was never about having a rosy take on everything; it was about avoiding the kind of despair that can result from repeated frustration.

Celebrate Small Successes Along the Way

To keep up a culture of learning, you need to recognize that every time you discover something new, it’s an important step forward. Researchers call this the progress principle. The more people experience a sense of progress, the more productive they are — including in the effort to “solve a major scientific mystery.”

In our case, some of these victories were literally microscopic. Every time we came up with a component that could ultimately serve as part of our design, we took time to enjoy it and reward the whole team. We told them that each step was huge because it proved that we can indeed create things never imagined before.

When we first managed to develop a system in which 18% of an infrared beam was convertible back into electricity, we had an office party. It wasn’t that the number itself was so impressive, but it was proof that the idea was possible. We’ve celebrated every incremental advancement since.

For any organization or product team that is striving to solve grand challenges with technology, embracing these qualities as a team can help overcome setbacks. Seven years after creating the company, we won our category at the Consumer Electronics Show. In that moment, we were able to look back on the years of effort and know that they were worth it.

With these elements in place, any organization can keep up the effort through the toughest times. The more organizations build these cultures, the more advancements humanity will make.

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