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For innovation ideas, Tesla a model company to emulate

I’ve been fascinated by Tesla’s organizational culture for years, and think it’s not only key to the company’s viability, stock value and ability to relentlessly launch new and profitable electric cars, but also the reason Tesla could end up on the Fortune 2017 Best Companies to Work For list if they ever chose to apply!

I say that not wishfully or prophetically, although, full disclosure: My husband drives a Tesla, we own Tesla stock, and we have three electric car charging stations in the Dixon Schwabl parking lot for our like-minded employees. But because of all the companies I’ve studied, I’ve never seen one fueled by so much passion and innovation—almost to the exclusion of any other characteristics.

For such intangible assets, innovation and passion pulse through the company almost tangibly and certainly pervasively. And it’s not just me who thinks so: Tesla topped Forbes’ list of “The World’s Most Innovative Companies” in 2015.

And the fact that Forbes even has a list of the most innovative companies is testament to the value of passion and innovation. Certainly, the two traits directly impact how we work at Dixon Schwabl. Let’s take a look at the aspects of Tesla’s workplace culture that attract, retain, celebrate, develop and nurture passion and innovation.

So what’s in their special sauce? There are six features that fuel Tesla, according to an article published by the Panmore Institute:

  1. Move fast;
  2. Do the impossible;
  3. Constantly innovate;
  4. Reason from “first principles”;
  5. Think like owners; and
  6. We are all in.

Move fast: aka “adaptability”

According to the Harvard Business Review, “adaptability” is the new competitive edge. They define adaptability as “being able to respond quickly to a rapidly changing world.”

On a practical level, that means not necessarily being the best at what you do, but being great at learning to do new things. Never is this more apparent than in one of the rapidly evolving worlds I happen to live and work in: digital and social media.

At Dixon Schwabl, it’s critical that our employees “are quick to read and act on signals of change.” And even more important, our managers “have learned to unlock their greatest resources—the people who work for them.”

More power to the people

What do adaptability and “unlocking greatest resources” mean in terms of workplace culture? They foster a flexible organizational structure with decentralized decision-making powers. People on the front lines are empowered to respond in real time to take advantage of opportunities while they’re hot. (In other words, give your people the power to carpe diem!)

Harvard Business Review continues this thought: “At Whole Foods, the basic organizational unit is the team, and each store has about eight teams. Team leaders—not national buyers—decide what to stock. Teams have veto power over new hires. They are encouraged to buy from local growers that meet the company’s quality and sustainability standards. And they are rewarded for their performance with bonuses based on store profitability over the previous four weeks.”

I’ve also seen this repeatedly right here at Wegmans, where store-level employees have had the power to refund my purchases, honor my coupons, request and secure items to be stocked and more actions that directly, positively impact my experience and make me a happy, loyal customer for life.

Do the impossible: celebrate failure

While many companies celebrate hard work and success, the 100 Best Companies to Work For list says the biotechnology company Genentech gives out “Awesome Failure Awards” for strategic efforts that were smart, yet risky and ultimately didn’t pan out.

Sounds counterintuitive at first: why celebrate failure? It should be celebrated because the passion behind the effort is what sparks ideas, progress and innovation—and we want to encourage that fearless spirit in abundance.

Harvard Business Review agrees: “Adaptive companies are very tolerant of failure, even to the point of celebrating it. For example, the software company Intuit, which has been extremely successful at using adaptive approaches to grow new businesses, launched a marketing campaign in 2005 to reach young tax filers through a website called rockyourrefund.com. The site offered discounts at Expedia and Best Buy and the opportunity to get tax refunds in the form of prepaid gift cards. The campaign was a flop, and practically no one used the site.

“The amount of money involved was negligible—‘almost a rounding error,’ says Rick Jensen, the vice president of product management for Intuit’s consumer tax division. But the marketing team documented what it had learned from the failure and won an award from the company chairman, who said, ‘It is only a failure if we fail to get the learning.’”

Create a place to constantly innovate

SAS Institute, which creates analytic software, goes beyond celebration and recognition to spark innovation. The 100 Best Companies to Work For list shows SAS understands you can’t force or demand on-the-spot creative ideas or expect everyone to find their muse in the same way.

So SAS gives employees the freedom to work where, when and how they are most creative: private offices on campus or large collaborative areas with whiteboard walls and movable furniture, along with smaller meeting rooms for more intimate work sessions.

Think like owners to engage employees

On the 100 Best Companies to Work For list, it’s surprising to see a company that’s been around almost 120 years experience unprecedented, skyrocketing growth in the past 30 years, until you learn that the firm, Burns & McDonnell, became 100 percent employee-owned 30 years ago.

Makes sense when you think about it: When everyone is an owner, employees are more engaged and entrepreneurial. They naturally work harder and treat their jobs, well, like an owner would, which brings in a whole new level of teamwork and commitment.

Back at Tesla, according to an article from Modern Workforce by Everwise, the company “views engagement as more than a ‘nice to have.’” And Tesla has the numbers to prove it. Their research shows engaged teams have:

  • 15 percent more profitability;
  • 30 percent more productivity;
  • 12 percent higher customer engagement;
  • 30 percent less turnover;
  • 62 percent fewer safety issues; and
  • 37 percent less absenteeism.

Create a culture that drives passion

ManagementConsulted.com puts it this way: “Like Tesla Motors co-founder and CEO Elon Musk, Tesla is a company full of game changers and disruptors, and that’s exactly the type of people the company wants to bring on board. Tesla is looking for people who are passionate about what they do, the environment and changing the world for the better.”

And they’ve developed a culture that encourages exactly that kind of passion—and passion for innovation. Now if only they’d apply for a spot on the Best Companies to Work For list, I’d place my bet today!

Lauren Dixon is CEO of Dixon Schwabl Inc., a marketing communications firm, which has been honored as a best place to work.

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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