Creating Space for Innovation
This article was first published on susiebraam.com on 4 April 2022.
Back in 2017, I was responsible for a government incubator that pulled together one of the most talented, multi-organization, multi-disciplinary teams I’ve seen. We’d nailed the set up and support for this small and perfectly formed team. Each member was a subject matter expert in their own field. But they’d also been selected because of their mindset - their willingness to listen to and learn from each other and collaboratively explore solutions to the pressing challenges they were presented with. We coached them to optimise their team dynamics and effectiveness and taught them about customer discovery, problem exploration and validation, value proposition design, experimentation, iteration and testing. All that great stuff.
After 6 intense weeks, this world-class team presented the evidence from their early discovery work and proposed next steps to a group of senior leaders, who would be making the decision about whether or not they would continue to invest people and financial resources in this piece of work. What followed was an absolute car crash as the leaders around the table ignored and swiftly batted away the data and recommendations presented by the team, instead directing them to simply pursue an idea that was already in the leadership team’s head.
I brought an early close to the presentation, but not early enough. This team of experts, who had listened, explored and validated their learning to arrive at an informed proposal for next steps, was utterly dejected and demoralised. All but one quit the project. Not having a) prepared the leadership better in advance and b) shut the conversation down earlier as it started to take a turn for the worse is probably the biggest regret of my career. It’s certainly a moment that’s stayed with me for all the wrong reasons.
So what happened that day? Why did these leaders behave this way?
Those leaders went into HiPPO mode (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). Some of them because they genuinely believed their opinion was the only one that mattered, but most of them because they had been conditioned to think they needed to have answers to everything. Previous training, organisational culture and incentives meant they were conditioned to think short-term and believe that their seniority and existing knowledge trumped the expertise of more junior members of staff and the data that had emerged.
By acting in this way, they shut the space down for exploration, discovery and creativity. The team felt demoralised, not only because they did not feel heard, but because the excitement they had felt for the multitude of potentially game-changing possibilities to emerge had been well and truly extinguished.
Sadly, this happens a lot. It happens in companies and organisations of every size. It happens in our family and friendship systems. It happens in our own minds. I believe there are two interrelated reasons why we shut down the space for innovation and extinguish myriad possibilities:
Self-imposed constraints and unvalidated assumptions.
Discomfort with uncertainty, specifically reconsidering our thoughts and opinions.
Self-Imposed Constraints and Unvalidated Assumptions
Constraints come in all shapes and sizes. Constraints may be beliefs and attitudes (ours or others’), for example, “That level of risk is not acceptable for our organisation”. The constraint may be time or money, e.g. “I must have a workable solution ready within 4 weeks”. It may be written down or culturally accepted norms, policies and processes that constrain us: “That’s the way we do things here”. It might be societal or organisational constructs: “The people with those skills work in a different department so I can’t access them”. It might be some sort of physical or technical constraint: “We can only operate in the UK”.
Constraints are not necessarily bad and many will be necessary, such as regulatory constraints. Some constraints can even be helpful in focusing the mind and stimulating creativity. But often constraints have been self-imposed and are in fact unvalidated assumptions. We need to recognise when this is the case.
How can we make sure we don’t impose constraints unnecessarily to inhibit our thinking and close down opportunities prematurely?
Firstly, list the constraints and assumptions under which you’re working, innovating, creating. Talk it through with someone who can challenge them, ideally someone who’s not closely involved and can spot assumptions you’re making that you haven’t noticed. Something that is obvious to you because it is so entrenched that you don’t even list it, may well prompt someone else to ask why.
Second, validate the existence of those constraints. For example, if you believe you have to deliver a prototype or final product within a few weeks, because you believe this is the only acceptable time frame to your boss, check this. Have they explicitly told you this? Many times I’ve seen people self-impose made-up time limits on their creativity for which there is no evidence of the reality of their existence.
Third, if you have evidence that the constraint does exist, but you feel it’s either wrong or has a significant and detrimental impact, challenge it.
As a leader of innovation, you should be questioning the assumptions and self-imposed constraints your teams and others are making. You should question your own assumptions and champion any worthy challenge your teams make. You should also help them to think about the possibilities if any of those constraints no longer existed.
Key questions you can ask yourself or your teams:
What are the assumptions you’re making?
What constraints do you think you have to work around?
How do you know that to be true?
What could you do if x constraint didn’t exist?
Discomfort with Uncertainty: Reconsidering our Thoughts and Opinions
In my last Head of Innovation role, it was my job to help the organisation look further into the future; to imagine what the world might be like in 2, 5, 10, 20 years time. Then to help the organisation figure out how it will evolve and adapt to that new reality with intention and design. Yet any challenge to the status quo tended to provoke hostility and disengagement. Being asked to consider alternative futures, in which their role and identity may look very different (or potentially not exist at all), brought with it real discomfort.
That day of the incubator car crash, the same thing happened. Those leaders had already formulated an idea of what the solution should be and closed the space to further exploration. Further exploration was likely to deliver answers that weren’t their answers. It would likely have challenged their own thinking and opinions. Perhaps even challenged what they did and how they did it. And for those of a fixed mindset, challenges of this type are ultimately viewed as challenges to our very identity. It left them vulnerable.
In his latest book, Think Again, Adam Grant explains that: ‘Reconsidering something we believe deeply can threaten our identities, making it feel as if we’re losing a part of ourselves.’ We’ve confused opinion with identity - opinions can and should change in light of new information. Grant invites us to; ‘...let go of knowledge and opinions that are no longer serving you well, and to anchor your sense of self in flexibility rather than consistency’.
Developing a flexible mindset and the ability to re-evaluate our thoughts and opinions in light of new evidence is critical for innovation as well as our own individual growth. New possibilities and opportunities cannot emerge without it.
This is easy to say but often difficult to do. The first step is to become aware of when you are shutting the space down for yourself or others to think creatively and explore alternatives. Ask trusted friends and colleagues to challenge you when you shut things down - you may not even realise you are doing it. Take some time to reflect on the situation. What was said? What reaction did you have - physical and emotional? Do you really understand what caused that reaction? Try to articulate it. What could you try to do differently next time you’re in that situation? It may be as simple as to observe the feelings emerging in the moment. It may be to count to five before you react.
One executive I worked with found it very hard not to feel bounced into giving a decision and providing direction, even when it wasn’t being asked for explicitly. Taking a pause or a moment to reflect felt uncomfortable to him and using a coaching approach - asking questions to encourage independent thinking - didn’t come naturally. Together we developed just one question he could ask in place of jumping straight into advice, which he was comfortable to practise using. For him, this was around asking teams what evidence their thinking was based on. This was something that felt tangible but also demonstrated curiosity and opened up the conversation. It enabled him to shift the conversation away from advice and opinion and towards a more dispassionate, data-informed discussion.
When we’re trained and rewarded for short-term delivery and our (organisational) culture encourages us to hold fast to our existing knowledge and opinions, the space for innovation - for creativity and exploration of new ideas and opportunities - gets shut down. Unquestioned constraints and discomfort with uncertainty encourages us to default to learned behaviour, which prioritises our own opinions and a bias towards action over new data and the exploration of new possibilities.
The first step to overcoming this learned behaviour is to start spotting it and be curious about it and support others to do likewise. The more we question and remain open and curious, the better we are at keeping the space open. The better we become at navigating complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. The better we become as leaders, but also as parents, partners and friends. I promise you, it’s worth it.