Innovation is a big deal. We need to embrace fresh ideas and new ways of thinking if we want to continue to be effective in what we do. So we asked Jonah Sachs – the man named one of today’s 50 most influential social innovators – what we could do better when it comes to innovation…
CC: You’ve written that we’re programmed to favour the safe and familiar so how do you think we get people, particularly those in charities, to think innovatively?
JS: I wrote in my book Unsafe Thinking about this ‘safe thinking cycle’. This is the idea that the more we perceive we have to do something differently, because what we’re doing is no longer working and we’re not making enough money or not getting enough responses to our communications, then what happens is it raises a certain level of anxiety and stress in our organisations and ourselves. What we then do is commit to saying ok we need to do something different but then time pressure, financial pressure, and boss pressure comes in. When this happens our brains are actually programmed to respond to that anxiety by thinking in stereotypical ways and that kind of comes from evolution.
CC: What do you mean by that?
JS: Well if you were walking in the Savannah and an animal jumped out at you the best thing to do is not to sit and think of new ideas and wait for new possibilities – you just run away. So what happens is we perceive we need to change, we commit to changing and then we look for the most expedient or obvious path forward, which just kind of puts us back where we started again but things have become even worse. We’ve stuck to old tried and true routines.
CC: So what should we do to encourage confidence to innovate?
JS: We need to take those moments where we feel the stress and anxiety and reframe them in our minds for ourselves and our teams as opportunities for creativity. We should recognise that no breakthroughs have ever happened when people were comfortable and our best ideas don’t come from low risk situations.
Some of the work I do with teams is to say that when we perceive we’re in a rush, the stakes are high and we have to get something done, that’s the time to ask new questions we don’t usually ask. Questions like: what might we try that we haven’t done before? Or what path makes us nervous but sounds exciting? By reframing those questions we start to come up with new answers. The idea is not that we should always go for the craziest, wildest idea we have, but if organisations don’t have specific pathways for trying new things out we’re basically doomed to fail.
Ask, do we ever take risks? Which risks are we willing to try and fail at? Then try to open up at least around 25% of the space for our team to experiment to really make that difference.
CC: But how do we get those in senior positions to give that space and opportunity?
JS: I find we’re in a strange sort of environment in which everybody knows that innovation is important, everyone’s asking for it, everyone’s putting pressure on their teams for it. But when it comes down to it everyone wants to continue down the safe path and it’s sort of a bind that we’re in within organisations.
One thing I have studied is this idea of ‘articulated dissent’ where people boldly and proudly explain how they’re working around the rules or how they’re going to try a new direction and frame it as ‘for the good of the team’. That is because in organisations – as people who have studied dissent within organisations will know – people going around the rules, not following orders, or just secretly working on stuff without being noticed can be seen as disloyal or dangerous. So although it can be really scary, and you need to do it in a pro-social way, articulated dissent actually often makes you perceived by managers as loyal and innovative and is one way to deal with overly conservative bosses. We tend to assume we don’t have the space to innovate or we’ll get shut down, and maybe we try things and when we do try them we get yelled at, but this idea of articulated dissent where you look at your boss and the brief you’ve been given and directly explain why it’s not right and why you’re going to try something different can often yield surprising results.
Also a lot of stuff really does come down to leadership. If leaders aren’t self-aware enough and are not doing some of the critical things that need to happen like pulling ideas from the edges of the organisation, not bringing in people who disagree with them, and not leading with humility, an organisation can get stuck and truly creative individuals may move on.
CC: What would be your key tips for becoming a champion of fresh thinking?
JS: Whatever level you’re at; whether you’re leading the whole organisation, leading a small team, or just participating in a team, I think it’s really important to recognise the value of productive disagreement. Organisations where people are too nice or too concerned with just getting along tend to not be very creative but at the same time organisations in which people don’t feel safe enough to be themselves and feel constantly under threat of being fired are also often not creative. Whatever you can do to contribute in your organisation to people feeling safe, protected and getting that psychological safety while finding ways to argue, defend and fight over ideas is what brings out group creativity.
We often think how do I contribute more creatively to innovation? When in reality the best innovation does come from teams that have psychological safety combined with the ability to fight and argue. Everybody has a role to play in that.
Helping people find their own particular role in the team whether they’re a leader and setting up opportunities for people to disagree, or a contributor taking a risk to say what they really think when they normally keep their mouth shut can encourage creativity. Again leaders can do things to facilitate this like change the incentive structure so people who take bold risks and fail get rewarded, not just people who find a way to succeed. Or consider giving credit for a whole team as that enables individuals to say ‘I’ll take risks so the whole team gets rewarded’.
There are many steps to take but going back to how you respond to moments of fear and anxiety, and if you see them as fuel for creativity or if you see them as a signal you should back off, is key. If you’re constantly backing off from things that make you nervous you’re probably not going to find innovation.
If you are interested in the topic of innovation, check out the slides from the Charitycomms ‘Innovation mindset’ seminar.