The Most Irritating Blind Date Ever, And What It Has To Do With Innovation
So I went on this blind date once when I was about 22 or 23. It was at The Cheesecake Factory in Redondo Beach, California. I can’t remember who fixed us up, the guy’s name, or many other details. But what I do remember was getting in this heated debate with him about science.
Wait, let me step back. So, I love science. I have a bunch of doctors in my family and always loved nerding out on medical stuff. I was a math major in college. I have always been fascinated by physics. Not necessarily the algorithms associated with it. But the way those algorithms attach math to the experience of life. I was an engineer and led teams of engineers and saw this beautiful creative process happen during systems design time and again. To me, science and math are creative. In fact, the ultimate form of creativity, since it’s well known that literally any and all forms of creation live on a foundation of math.
So back to the date. I think he’d asked me how I got into engineering, and I probably brought up some weird science-y theory I’d concocted. And he went all black and white on me. He basically said that if something has not been proven already, it’s impossible.
First, let’s get one thing straight. I am a firm believer in science.
However, think of the great scientists who’ve proven our understanding of the natural world. Theories can’t be proven unless they are postulated. If everyone believed that “if something hadn’t been proven already, it’s impossible”, nothing would be proven. We would be in a perpetual state of scientific stasis.
Science evolves like this. Something is observed, someone tries to explain why it happens and a theory is proven (or not). Then more data comes in. Something new is observed. An outlier is identified. It doesn’t fit into the existing theory, so someone tries to explain why it happens and a new theory is proven (or not). That’s kinda how innovation works too.
Remember back when the world was flat?
Without innovative thinking, maybe it still would be.
Proving something new about the natural world is a massively creative, and often risky, ridiculed and dangerous endeavor. It’s vulnerable. You’re not just putting paint on canvas, you’re theorizing how the entire freaking universe operates. People have been ostracized and even killed for it.
My reaction to that blind date’s statement was quite charged, and sparked a lifelong passion for finding the intersection point between innovation, creativity, flow and science. Now that I’m an executive coach, I see how that intersection point exists (or not) within companies that strive to be driven by a culture of innovation.
Business innovation can feel similarly risky to scientific innovation. Granted, death is not normally on the table. But taking risks can feel like a life or death proposition to the person doing the risk-taking. We are biologically wired for belonging and connection, and if we risk and fail, we naturally fear losing that belonging and connection (and in this case, potentially our job). To flourish, innovation needs an environment which encourages a little bit of crazy, and allows the space to dwell on identifying the problem, not just actions and results.
In fact, scientists like Einstein spent much of their time in the etherworlds of the unknown. He wasn’t spending the bulk of his time with calculators and rulers and beakers. He was floating in an untethered sea of creative thinking. To get beyond the confines of the existing defined explanation of the natural world, you need to observe what doesn’t fit until you can define the new problem set. Einstein said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
That’s how science sparks. That’s how innovation happens.
So let’s take things down in scope from the natural world to your company. I don’t know a founder, exec or team that doesn’t want innovation infused into their company. Innovation and growth go hand in hand.
Yet, when I talk to their people — the ones with the creative minds that they hired to innovate, I get a different story. Things like:
· They want me to think out of the box-ish. Anything goes, as long as it doesn’t stray too far from the box. A rectangle is ok.
· I can innovate and try new things as long as I still make my numbers and deadlines and the metrics stay solid.
· I was hired to innovate, but I spend my days in back to back meetings. I have no time to think and create.
· I was part of a design thinking meeting, brainstorming on new channels. We were told that no idea is a stupid idea. So I threw one out, and the CEO said, “that will never work” and a couple of people laughed at me under their breath.
· I’m told we value innovation above all, but the people that get promoted are the ones that do the same old thing, but meet their numbers, not those of us innovating.
I can’t tell you how many of my clients have the value “Innovation” slapped up on the kitchen wall. But that value’s talk is rarely walked. In reality, true innovation is typically shot down with “That won’t work”, “That’s not how we do things around here.” “That’s too risky” “Are you crazy?” or simply “There’s no time to sit around thinking.” And, as a leader, you have about one or two chances to actually walk the innovation talk — to genuinely encourage and support innovation, instead of stifling it — before your team will just shut that s**t down and stay inside the lines forevermore.
It takes courage to step outside the confines of norms to postulate a new theory. If someone on your team braves it, and is ignored, mocked, ridiculed or shamed, guess what?
The term “psychological safety” is all over the press these days. Cliff notes: if people don’t feel safe in your company, a lot of bad things happen. One of them is that innovation is dulled, if not decimated. People will think in black and white, when you want them thinking in all the colors.
PSA: If you want people to innovate, they have to feel safe doing so.
The problem is that there no light switch to turn on a culture of safety. In fact, the shadows around psychological safety are often deeply embedded into a company’s fabric.
However, if you are committed to creating a culture of safety to nurture innovation, here’s some things to consider. They build on each other, so I’ll list them in order.
· Step 1: It starts at the top — as a leader, you need to model the type of risk taking necessary for innovation. That means being vulnerable. That means understanding that vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness. I’m not talking about you doing an all hands, crying about that one time your mom missed your baseball game when you hit a home run. I’m talking about sharing your own experiences of going to bat, striking out, and then going to bat again. Dr. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”, and goes on to explain that ‘the courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.” Do some of that. Reading Recommendation: Dare to Lead
· Step 2: Trust is inexorably linked to safety. If your team doesn’t trust you as a leader, they will not take risks. Building trust is a natural result of the vulnerability you’re willing to show, and the integrity you show on a daily basis. Reading Recommendation: 5 Dysfunctions of a Team
· Step 3: Learn how to have productive conflict. This can’t happen without a strong base of trust. If your team doesn’t trust each other, they will self-protect instead of engaging in healthy debate. There are teachable methods to learn how to do this, and it’s a process, not a one and done. Reading Recommendation: Crucial Conversations
· Step 4: True “safety to fail” comes with rigor around its ramifications. You need to operationalize your words into processes and practices. Things like:
o In meetings, if someone interrupts the person speaking, anyone in the room is encouraged to speak up and call that out.
o We are welcome to have healthy debate about an idea in the room, but we will not nod our heads in agreement and then walk out the door and start telling people how stupid the idea is.
o We focus on gaining true clarity on “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” before we push for solutions (even if that clarity is a time consuming exercise). This is a healthy way to risk-mitigate innovation.
o We will do retrospectives on each failed idea, to glean learnings from it.
o We will not fire, demote or do anything punitive to anyone who took a risk, despite the results.
o We reward people based on less easily quantifiable criteria, which might include the brilliance and creativity of an idea, versus just looking at OKRs, deadlines and milestones.
o Reading Recommendation: Dare to Lead
As a leader before you can mandate innovation from your team, you need to really question if you are willing to take the risks and demonstrate the vulnerability and trust that are inexorably linked with it. You need to be willing to put your money where your mouth is, even when it’s literal money lost through failed attempts at innovation. Read up on case studies of the companies like 3M, DHL and Lego that have taken the risks and reaped the rewards. It’s a long term game. Are you in it?