In today’s uncertain world, organisations need to be able to innovate quickly. However, human beings don’t problem-solve well under stress or in negative environments, so setting the conditions to allow innovation to thrive becomes hugely important. It’s all about building the culture and practices that really make relationships grow and ideas flow.
Our working environments are increasingly defined by their high unpredictability and rapid change. What is needed is the capacity to innovate and collaborate at pace whilst navigating these challenges. We have moved beyond the time when uncertainty and disruption were seen as crises, blips from the norm. Coping with and working through uncertainty is now the norm, and one might argue that it has always been this way, especially within knowledge environments, yet only now do we have the real insights to excel in this world.
The Human Aspect
As humans, we are geared physiologically and mentally to work together as a group towards a purpose. Knowledge is socially constructed; it needs people in order to spread and develop. To tackle challenges together, we need to share information and engage with one another.
We are a hive species. Our specialised knowledge needs to be constantly extended, taught and passed on in our communities. Whether that’s via rituals, behaviours, oral traditions or in books, the printed word or electronically. We have always needed and will always need to collaborate to survive. In this respect, we have excel.
Building Cultures of Innovation
Peter Drucker once famously said: ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ Everything rests on culture, the stories that emerge define people’s attitudes and behaviour, their sense of justice and belonging to something that matters.
Great things can happen when people are not afraid to open themselves up to criticism, adaption and change. The people and networks that develop within our organisations are at the heart of this capacity to adapt. Innovative cultures thrive where ideas are exchanged in an environment of trust and psychological safety. Studies have shown that people are more open-minded, resilient, motivated and solution-orientated when they feel safe. People can see challenges as positive opportunities rather than as threats. This is a huge factor in business success.
A Safe Space to Explore Ideas
In psychologically safe, high-performing teams, collaboration and innovation are strong features because people:
- feel respected and accepted
- display trust and trust-making behaviours
- are willing to take risks and try new approaches
- have high levels of resilience and motivation
- foster a positive and humorous culture as a result
One key part of the journey towards truly innovative ideas is the capacity of the team to engage in divergent thought. In today’s workplaces, we are well-versed in analysing problems and the need for fast decision-making. But we can be guilty of jumping straight to convergence: dissecting ideas before we have given ourselves and others the opportunity to fully explore them. In a safe space, the team engage in divergent thinking that is open, free and unconventional. There’s no such thing as a crazy idea. A team in this phase can explore their thinking and the farthest reaches of their creativity.
In addition to safety, innovative teams flourish in organisations where purpose is clear. A generation of employees are now driven by a desire for meaning in their work. A strong shared sense of purpose can bring people together and increase the innovative capacity of their endeavours.
The Harvard Business Review report ‘The Business Case for Purpose’ was a global survey of 474 executives that found “companies with a strong sense of purpose are able to transform and innovate better.” Half of the executives (53%) at companies with a strong sense of purpose reported that their organisation was successful with its efforts to innovate and transform.
The Skills of Innovative Teams
It may be tempting to see innovation as being about disruptive technologies or futuristic visions, but it’s actually firmly rooted in the dynamic between people. Innovative teams need structure and clarity, but also need to develop effective behaviours and practices that will lead the team to be successful. Skills that are based on successful relationship-building, collaboration and communication are vital in order to capture and develop opportunities. The good news is that these skills can be taught and learnt.
Emotional intelligence can drive innovative practice, but capabilities such as this are sometimes treated as ‘fluffy’ soft skills. This decries their true value. Encouraging people to be open and free, to express their ideas, and to open up problems encourages people to engage in their work and they then naturally take accountability for their actions. There is a positive cascade that begins when a leader models emotional intelligence. The culture and practice of innovation are progressively driven forwards from this starting point.