Being creative in an organization implies taking risks. It means openly sharing your ideas, even those ideas that are undeveloped, half-baked, and a long way from being concrete. Innovation is a process of dialogue--an open exchange of ideas resulting in continuous improvement and delineation of creative thoughts into tangible policies, processes, or technologies.
Recently, my team and I had the occasion to lead one company’s effort in coming up with new ideas. What I noticed right away was that many in the room--a mix of high-potentials, engineers, and industry leaders--were hesitant to suggest an idea that was not fully formed, or may be regarded by others as not relevant, or going against the stream.
Most of the ideas that were initially proposed were well in step with the paradigm of the organization. That is, people were comfortable suggesting only moderate changes, and did not venture to suggest something truly disruptive. Status, turf, and fear of embarrassment led to hesitation.
The reaction of the group when asked to share their ideas is a testament to the fact that when you want people to throw out their creative concepts, you must create safety for them.
What is necessary for truly disruptive and irreverent ideas to come forth is a deep sense of social-psychological safety, a feeling that not only would the ideas not be dismissed, but that the intent and self-esteem of the person suggesting the idea would be protected by the group. The ability to create social-psychological safety is an essential leadership skill. Innovation leaders who create social-psychological safety are likely to see many more disruptive, and indeed, creative solutions come to the surface.
It’s not enough to give your team a venue to share ideas if the atmosphere is pervaded by rules, rigid structure, and unspoken judgment. Innovation leaders create safety by doing the following things:
1) Challenge, Don’t Push
Innovation leaders ask questions and begin conversations, but they should never dictate a path or force a solution. They let ideas swell up without shouldering people onto a set path. Like Patton said, "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity."
2) Question for Forward Movement
Innovation leaders never dismiss ideas--they question them or add to them. They never reject an idea outright, because they may be rejecting another idea that hasn’t even come out yet. Remember the words of Nobel Prize laureate Linus Pauling: “The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.” Innovation leaders must always draw out as many ideas as they can.
3) Maintain Curiosity
Innovation leaders are passionate about finding the right solution or idea. They don’t take breaks, check their email, leave the room, or take phone calls. They are engaged with the group and committed to coming up with ideas.
4) Evaluate, Don’t Judge
Innovation leaders don’t rank ideas. They only try to discover which ones are best for certain situations. Judging creates a win-lose environment where individuals are afraid to participate.
5) Reinforce Optimism
Innovation leaders always maintain energy, pride, and optimism. Innovation isn’t always an overnight process. Confidence levels must be maintained. Innovation leaders keep spirits up, cheer, and support.
6) Intervene Tactically
Lastly, innovation leaders are attuned to group dynamics and can step in to guide the group in a more focused direction. However, these interventions must be done tactically and with great care.
Innovation leaders know how to harness individual creativity and translate it to concrete innovations. Alexander Graham Bell--who is innovation personified--once remarked, “Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds. I may be given credit for having blazed the trail, but when I look at the subsequent developments I feel the credit is due to others rather than myself.” Innovation is a team effort, and innovation leaders are ready and willing to take up the task.