Innovation is widely regarded as a critical factor for sustainable growth and performance. This is especially true in today’s competitive environment marked by shorter product life cycles, light-speed changes in technology and rapid increase in globalisation.
As work goes remote for teams around the world, there is an absence of context and meaning that can slow the innovative process down. If you read my last article, you may be unsure if you relate with the pains of not seeing the context of your work. Our individual experiences may vary, but we’ve collectively begun to feel the emotional impact that remote work has on us. How we generate insights, ideas and knowledge in teams has also been heavily affected. Pre-pandemic, teams relied on social interactions in meeting spaces to produce refined ideas and work. Virtual work has added an extra layer of uncertainty and complexity to the way we interact. Given that employee innovation is developed during safe social exchanges, and that long-term organisational success is tied to innovation, identifying ways of inspiring safe social exchanges in remote teams is important.
Knowledge is Power…
Innovative behaviour is considered to be a series of activities that include knowledge generation, sharing and usage. This process creates new technologies, processes, techniques and products. In this article, I focus on the innovative process (i.e. engaging with innovative activities) rather than the outcome.
We are all familiar with the adage, “knowledge is power”. When applied correctly, this cliché has pushed educational institutions, government agencies, research, human relationships, for-profit and not-for-profit organisations unto heights of success that were otherwise hidden. Successes that include the invention fire, vaccines for killer diseases, wireless telephones, and self-driving vehicles. For teams to display innovative behaviour, they need an innovative environment. This is created and maintained by inclusive leadership.
Innovative environments are characterised by the presence of intrinsic values like trust, cooperation and openness to continuous change. Employees use these spaces to improve organisational functioning. By making suggestions, expressing divergent opinions and listing any concerns, individuals learn and directly contribute to their teams’ growth. Inclusive leaders serve as the main agents for creating these spaces.
The concept of individual learning…
All humans are capable of learning. It forms the foundation of our innovative journeys. Through learning, we expand our capacity to imagine, generate new ideas and bring new artefacts to life. By recognising our own inherent ability to learn, we can embrace this shared value. Learning is rarely a straightforward process. Observe kids learning how to walk or recall your early memories of speaking a new language. We stumble and fall, get bruised and cry, yet we stand up again each time to repeat the process. Parents and caregivers provide us the support and encouragement needed during these stages. As we go through the educational system, this basic process is gradually forgotten, and grades become the primary concern as safe learning takes the backseat.
The more we learn, the better we get. Suddenly, being perfect becomes our sole target as the illusion of competency sets in. We begin to overestimate our abilities and inaccurately assume that we know more than we really do. Sadly, almost ALL of us overestimate how much we know, we all have pockets of incompetence that can go unrecognised.
In school, the problems we solved were well-defined. Solution packs and online resources were readily available to us. Reality hits us when we move into the workforce — problems become complex — and we have to solve them with the help of others. Realising how little we know, we can feel very vulnerable. For some, this leads to defensiveness in a bid to hide our perceived weakness. We may blame ourselves, colleagues and employees under us for not achieving the same standard of perfection we set for ourselves.
Organisational knowledge generation…
“Success can only be achieved through repeated failure and introspection. Success represents the 1% of your work that results after the 99% that was called failures” — Soichiro Honda
In our early days at Neat, our team was composed of 5 members. Saturday mornings were reserved for new idea brainstorms. Our team would list all possible ideas on a whiteboard. Most were ridiculous, some were amusing and less than two ideas were worth exploring. Going through this process systematically helped us move quickly from a fuzzy idea to building our minimum viable product.
Organisational knowledge generation is a crucial innovative behaviour. Leaders must focus on creating safe spaces for teams and individuals to quickly learn, fail, generate new ideas, and experiment. Real thinking occurs when multiple perspectives are explored with an open-mindedness that allows for a creative solution to arrive. We now know that the collective intelligence and strength of a team exceeds that of separate individuals.
Our existing high-performance work system emphasises strict recruitment, salary management, result-based assessment and employee competitiveness. Little emphasis has been placed on ways to stimulate employee innovative behaviour. When the permission to fail is not expressly noted, organisations fail to experiment. Individuals in these types of organisations approach their roles as disparate tasks to complete. They focus on their assigned tasks, do their jobs very well, submit any deliverables required, receive their paycheques, and move on with their lives.
When the Honda Motor company entered the US market in 1959, they started with a handful of low-powered motorcycles. After enduring failure after failure, they learned that the little motorcycles that were popular in the suburbs of Tokyo, were not used often in the wide-open roads of the USA. After introducing a range of high-powered bikes, popularity and usage skyrocketed.
Organisational learning is hindered by “the enemy is out there” syndrome; assigning blame when things get tough. Sales blames production, “If only our products were competitive enough, we’d meet sales targets”. Engineering blames leadership, “We’ll become an industry leader if our leaders quit messing with our designs”.
Inclusive leaders serve as hosts to inspire meaningful conversations among people from different parts of the organisation. Leaders-as-hosts are skilled conveners. They realise the rich resources already existing within their organisations and tap into it. They create measurable change by relying on their people’s commitment, generosity and creativity.
Promoting a sense of safety for knowledge creation…
Confucius notably said “Real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s own ignorance”
The concept of psychological safety is built deeply into the environment by organisation leaders. As Simon Sinek describes it, trust and cooperation are feelings and not an instruction or command.
Psychological safety has been defined as a social condition of feeling included, safe to learn, contribute, challenge the status-quo and take risks without the fear of embarrassment and punishment.
At a basic level, all teams look up to their leaders to create the safety needed for creativity to flourish. Inclusive leaders create this type of environment by first being open and vulnerable; admitting their own infallibility and knowledge gaps. This not only signals openness, trust and humility, it also acknowledges that mistakes are a normal and an important part of learning. It further encourages employees to tap into their wealth of knowledge without fear and to engage in risky creative activities — i.e. voicing up new ideas.
When psychological safety is absent, employees view the sole aim of the organisation as maximising the organisation’s own interests. Absolute top-down approach where leaders of organisations are viewed as “all-knowing” has shown significant signs of stress. In these teams, 80% of the talking in a group setting is done by decision makers. Everyone else contributes 20%, usually directed towards agreeing with the leaders.
Ways to Foster Psychological Safety as a leader…
1. Asking for feedback and help: Even when it’s hard to hear, genuine feedback makes us stronger. Ask for help when we run into challenges and problems. It legitimises collaborative learning as you embrace quality and actionable feedback from any direction.
2. Continuous learning: Adopting a learner’s mindset means that we are open to change and growth. Although team members may be experts in their domain, help them understand that permanent competency doesn’t exist. Regardless of rank and influence, we can learn anything from anyone when we adopt a humble approach to learning.
3. Inclusive Leadership: We all have a human need to belong and be included. As very social creatures, we need each other. In this connecting process, leaders share emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual values. Inclusive leaders model vulnerability that creates deep bonding opportunities.
4. Share your story, learn their story: Be the first to be vulnerable. Rapport is built by sharing the right amount of personal experiences and stories then asking the other person “Tell me your story”. We all like to share our story when genuine interest is expressed. We want our leaders and colleagues to understand what makes us tick, how we are wired and what we care about.
5. Show up with your full self: Avoid hiding behind positions, titles and roles. These are artefacts that enable a smooth organisational functioning. Share any past challenges and the learning that resulted from it.
6. Express gratitude and appreciation: When team members try hard but fail to meet set goals, empathise and recognise their efforts. When they perform beyond expectations, express genuine gratitude and praise.
7. Rotate meeting conductions: A simple way of empowering others to contribute is by allowing them to conduct team meetings. By rotating this assignment, team members get the opportunity to learn and build greater confidence in themselves.
8. Respond constructively to disruptive ideas: Maintain a positive attitude when the status quo is challenged. This is a clear signal that you tolerate candour and will protect your people and their right to dissent.
Knowledge generation is like building a tree: some branches may lead to dead ends, but they contribute to your teams’ overall experience and growth. Leaders are stewards of this complex process. They do this by creating safe spaces — online and offline — for their people to interact and find the right solutions to pressing problems.
Whoever said talk is cheap is mistaken. Authentic and unbridled conversations have the capacity to influence our actions. Today’s employees consider themselves to be owners and investors of their energy, time and expertise; they need safe spaces, real motives and adequate support structures so that they can learn, contribute and innovate.