Innovation & Fear

I have talked to several organizations lately who have made innovation a top priority. I don’t have any formal statistics on this, but anecdotal evidence is suggesting that a very large number of companies are trying very hard to make innovation not just a part of their business models, but an inherent part of their culture.

Enterprise innovation has several success stories–usually companies launching new products and services. But there seem to be very few best practices on individual innovation–the kind where employees think like entrepreneurs and actively seek out and share their ideas. Some companies that do this better than others actually have allocated 10% of work time for exactly this purpose and have created traditional and virtual places where these ideas can be processed. Since there are a number of good books and articles out there that you can Google to learn about Innovation Methodologies, what I’d rather focus on today is the emotional intelligence dimension of innovation.

First, as I’ve discussed in previous blogs on creativity, a fear-free time and place must exist. This is something you might have experienced in college or high school classes where you had a teacher who welcomed your raising your hands and encouraged you to question things. Juxtapose that to another class or teacher where you were expected to simply shut up and listen. It’s easy to see in what environment an employee and a leader will be more innovative.

So removal of fear-based environments is absolutely essential to high levels of innovation. It is rare that the first idea you have will require no fine-tuning; almost all ideas need divergent perspectives to get to that great idea stage. Fear will not only inhibit the first idea, but will also make the final idea much more vulnerable to flaws as fear prohibits that necessary collaborative due diligence. If you are a leader of a team or department and feel like your days and weeks are like groundhog day, and nothing new ever seems to happen, then start by asking if fear is present by imagining what kind of “classroom” you have.

I agree that lack of fear alone does not create innovation–there are obviously skills involved and equally important is a sense of deep curiosity and questions. If you cannot look around you right now and list 5 things to improve just a little bit in your current environment, then you have to question your self-awareness regarding curiosity.

Most people can actually come up with the 5 items but they often immediately follow them up with another 10 reasons why it can’t be changed. Some tell me they have tried and given up. They have peers and bosses who steal credit. Demoralized, they revert to simply doing their jobs. Apathy. If this sounds similar, you are not alone.

Organizational fear (what I spoke of earlier) has turned to personal fear–“if I keep pushing, I’ll be an outcast.” This is a legitimate personal fear that is paralyzing both personally and to the organization. The truth, however, is that unless something changes, the status quo will continue. This week I ask you a rhetorical question for your reflection–how much fear–organizational and personal–exists on your workplace team?

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