Innovation is a buzz word of contemporary industry. Everyone wants more of it, they’re not sure how to find it or create it, and how to do you budget for it? In a world of constant change, a continuously competitive marketplace, and an increasingly complex and costly environment, we need our organizations to be excelling into new spaces. So how do we do it?
Healthy innovation goes much deeper than simply a new product concept or process fix. It is more than relying upon a single idea or two to lead an organization into new markets or opportunities. Innovation comes from intentional choices from leadership to prioritize new and creative avenues. It comes from creating a culture of freedom that encourages openness and divergent thinking. It grows when managers don’t punish mistakes but instead view them as testing grounds to find the right solution.
Innovative cultures not only encourage this type of thinking, they reward it. Management and evaluation practices must align with the verbal promotion around creativity and innovation. The old adage is true, “what gets measured gets improved.” Without systems in place to ensure innovation is a top priority (for leaders and employees), it won’t happen.
The necessary precursor to innovation in any team or organization is psychological safety. Psychological safety includes trust, but goes well beyond that foundational principle. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines it as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ It reflects an environment where team members aren’t afraid to be embarrassed or rejected for sharing their thoughts or opinions. Mutual respect exists amongst each participant, and therefore creative, risky, or unusual ideas have the security to be offered.
Google did extensive research in this area and found two key elements present in teams that hold high psychological safety: they promote equality in the amount of time taken in conversation, and have team members that have high social sensitivity. So if we know these are the elements that build psychological safety, and we know psychological safety promotes a culture of innovation, what do we do about it?
There are some key questions you can be asking of your organization:
- Is failure acceptable? Are we ok with uncertainty?
- Do we value open communication, and encourage all voices to be heard?
- Is empathy encouraged? Do we pay attention to the emotional responses of others?
- How do we treat each other? What behaviors need to change to build respect and trust?
Some ideas to implement might include:
- Aim for 70% success. If you expect 100%, people won’t take risks. Permission to not reach 100% encourages trying new ideas.
- Create mechanisms for front-line workers to offer ideas (These are who Peter Drucker called “knowledge workers”). They often have the best insight for the starting place for innovation
- Build innovation into the strategy agenda for senior leadership. Without intentional focus, it struggles to receive the priority it requires
- Don’t just give a new project to whoever has free time or could finish it most easily. Before you delegate, ask yourself, “Who would feel challenged by this project and has the capacity to rise to the challenge?”
- Make vulnerability acceptable. This often requires you modeling it first. Vulnerability builds trust and opportunity to grow psychological safety.