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How to Get -- and Keep -- a Culture of Innovation

03/12/2013 11:16 am ET | Updated May 12, 2013
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The secret is making employees feel safe to be different.

Fresh, new ideas are the currency of growth. Companies are best served when they nurture a culture of ideas. To do so, an enterprise needs to be that crucible where everyone feels safe enough to let his or her imagination soar and create the innovation that's the lifeblood of success.

Key to creating is vulnerability. Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist at Kansas State University, has demonstrated in his research that to be able to learn, one must experience wonder. And to experience wonder, one must allow oneself to be vulnerable. This, he says, will only happen in a safe, empathetic environment.

Self preservation is normal.
How do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in corporate environments, where we train to be impenetrable?

Make the question personal.

Companies and organizations are gatherings of people. What do you need to feel safe? For 75 percent of employees, the most stressful part of their job is dealing with their direct boss. Innovation is an answer to a need. As you learn to articulate and be comfortable with your own needs, innovating for others becomes easier.

Do you trust your work environment? For that matter, do you trust yourself? If you don't, chances are you're not going to be very innovative or open. When we feel safe, we take chances, we explore, we're curious, we're willing to experiment and play with possibilities. When we don't feel safe, our fear triggers internal defenses that tell us to run, shut down or fight our way out of something until we feel safe again.

For those of us who are building or running companies, the question of safety makes our primary focus pretty simple as well: Have we created an environment where people feel safe to take chances? How do we support their efforts to take chances and how have we communicated that they are supported in doing so? Have we defined and articulated who is accountable for what? Are there well-defined lines of demarcation and consequences for crossing those lines and do those lines and consequences apply to everyone unilaterally?

The first step toward innovation is reducing fear, especially the fear of being perceived as vulnerable.

Who's got your back?
Do you back out on yourself at the first sign of challenge, doubt or uncertainty? Can you hold your own with the mental barrage that shows up as you open to new possibilities and perspectives? Before anything new is created, there is chaos. That is a law of nature. The more adept you are at navigating these unexpected moments of chaos where possibility abounds, the greater the sense of confidence you will possess which, in turn, allows you to reach for new levels of innovation. In order to be this adept at navigating these very specific moments of insight and opportunity, you have to have your own back.

How honest are you with yourself about your own levels of self trust and self confidence?

The process of backing yourself up starts in knowing the answer to that question. When you have your own back, you can maintain equilibrium in any level of chaos that radical new consideration may bring with it.

When you are willing to be vulnerable with yourself, and you're committed to having your back, new connections are possible -- which is the very place where mental synapses explode and fresh thinking and innovation emerge. It is important to note however that any change needs a strong support system to be successful. This McKinsey study indicates the impact bosses have when they watch out for their team's back and the psychological safety when they do so.

A crucible of ideas.
Make yourself, and your company, a haven, a safe crucible where you encourage a willingness to be open -- with yourself and each other, a place to tempt the fear, to listen to your instinct and feel secure enough to allow new connections. As a leader of a culture of innovation, you'll need to ensure you do this on a consistent basis for yourself. It's futile to try to create a culture of openness and innovation unless we know what we are asking, feels like. What leaders want to see on the outside starts with recalibrating the inside.

If you are willing to do this, you and your team will experience the joy of creating freely, transforming our perceptions and in doing so, understanding on a new level what the people we are creating for, need. When you create a safe crucible, your teams can bring you the groundbreaking ideas that will make your company, and everyone in it, evolutionary.

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