Updated: Feb 27, 2019
It all comes down to safety and risk.
Innovation occurs in organisations where people do not fear being punished for failure.
The punishment may not be obvious, it may actually be subversive or implicit and may even be a part of the organisation's culture. However, the reality is that if people don’t feel psychologically safe, they won’t be creative.
Creativity occurs when the natural blocks that we put in place to be a part of a group or society are allowed to fall.
We spend our entire lives being taught to fit within boxes. When we are children we are taught to write with only one hand, to conform to educational standards, think in similar patterns and follow the same rules. All of these things aid the stability of society. These norms are useful. However, if you are trying to innovate, you need to be conscious of these obstacles. Everyone has the ability to be creative, solve problems and innovate – you just need to nurture the right environment to allow these attributes to flourish.
Factors that inhibit creative thinking include:
Perception (cognitive biases or blocks): made famous with behavioural economics and “nudge” theory.
Our brains take short-cuts which leads to biased judgements.
Emotional blocks: normative or emotional constraints that prevent you as an individual from “sticking your neck out”. See any range of group conformity experiments, most notably Solomon Asch (1951) experiments on social pressure. We try to fit into the group.
Association blocks: the learned resistance that we have to solving problems with tools in unique or nontraditional ways. We rely on using tools as per their predetermined functions.
Cultural blocks: taboos that prevent people from thinking or behaving in certain ways that could solve problems. We behave within our cultural values.
Professional blocks: specific training within a profession that may prevent unusual or creative thinking. Our professions train us to perform using predetermined methods.
Intellectual blocks: the over thinking (or under thinking) of a problem that means you fail to see the real cause of the issue. We focus on symptoms and leap to solutions.
Environmental blocks: where the environment impacts your ability to think creatively, such as a noisy environment if you are someone who requires silence to think. We are forced to work in environments that don’t suit our individual thinking styles. If you want your organisation to innovate you need to be able to provide an environment where your employees believe that it is safe to (maybe temporarily) remove the blocks that prevent creativity and innovative thinking.
This is why design workshops and innovation labs successfully produce what people often think are “magical” outcomes. The function of these activities or places is to allow individuals to unburden themselves with the structures of organisational culture and give their minds permission to create. Labs are artificial spaces that enable people to safely use their imagination.
Is it possible to have whole organisations that are innovative? Of course, the first one that comes to mind is IDEO. There are also many others. However, their model requires a great deal of trust and everyone is on board. Not all organisations can be IDEO. Can you do this with your organisation?
Well my question to you is: Is your organisation psychologically safe?
Do people look forward to coming to work?Are employees comfortable raising issues and challenging the status quo?Do you have professions in your organisation that have traditional patterns of thinking or processing?Are there strong existing cultural norms that prevent left-field ideas?Is failure discussed openly as a part of professional mastery?Is experimentation a part of your everyday business practice?Do you value others’ opinions?Is your priority on making your team successful - or is it about individual success?
These are the sorts of questions you should be asking if you want to become an organisation known for innovation.
If you don’t think this is possible – then try a lab or introduce a design team to your organisation. They can help you disengage from the normal reality of your profession and access the existing tools you already have in your people – their imagination.
Supporting and enabling "design thinking", creativity or innovation will open a range of possibilities for success if you provide a safe environment for your employees.