Innovation Dies When Fear Rules

Whenever I get asked by executives about how their companies can innovate they expect me to respond with a prescriptive 3 to 5 point checklist of things that will solve all of their problems. Instead, I respond with a question: what are you doing to impede it?

Remember, innovation is 10x harder in established organizations than in startups because they’re addicted to efficiency and certainty; innovation is the opposite of these. So it’s normal for them to see innovation as an add-on to what already exists, and manage it the same way.

It doesn’t work that way. Innovation is not about “adding-on”, it’s addition by subtraction; you have to eliminate what stands in the way of it. And, what impedes it?

You got it: culture.

Where fear lives innovation dies

Culture is how you act on a day to day basis. It’s what you celebrate and punish. So if you celebrate efficiency and certainty but punish play and uncertainty; you’re doomed.

“Change management” is the common prescription to stagnation; a sign that a company needs to turn around. But it’s not about change management; it’s about empowering others. I assure you that all organizations have people that believe the status-quo sucks but don’t act because of fear of retaliation. These are the people that need to be unleashed.

Ask yourself: Why are they not speaking up? What are they afraid of? How is their inaction costing us in the long-term?

Make it safe to make mistakes and learn

When I took over Netek last year there was a culture of not speaking up, people would let leaders make all the decisions. I quickly took actions to change that by creating dialogue, being curious and asking tough questions.

My intent was to model the way, set expectations that mistakes would be made but would not turn a blind eye to them. Problems would be dealt with immediately so they didn’t become snowballs. Most importantly, I wanted to show the team that I wasn’t going to micromanage everything; I took more of a coaching approach to leadership.

I didn’t have anything reminding me of what I wanted to do, because I knew very clearly what behaviors I didn’t want to see from myself and everyone else. With that said, I recently found on Twitter a very good aid, created by by management guru Tom Peters, to remind leaders about how you create culture everyday:

culture tom peters

The same holds true for innovation. It’s not about forcing new behaviors, it’s about modeling the way. To create a culture of innovation you have to eliminate the fear of failure, because you can’t ask people to act in a certain way if you don’t do so yourself. Leaders have to create the conditions for others to thrive, it starts by modeling the way and celebrating learning from mistakes.

As Dan Rockwell says, “if you are a leader who never fails, the people around you will play it safe”.


Key Takeaways

  • Established organizations don’t lack innovative people. Rather, innovative people lack power and a place to thrive inside their companies.
  • There’s no template that anyone can use to plug and play into their organization that will make everything happen without mistakes. Humans are messy, innovation is messier.
  • There’s a reason why resilience is a trait found in entrepreneurs and innovators: it takes obsession, persistence and an unyielding belief in oneself. Find these people in your organization, empower them, clear obstacles for them and get out of their way.