“Five years ago, Alex Honnold scaled the sheer face of the 3,000-foot El Capitan escarpment alone and without ropes—the only person to have ever done so. Honnold has great skill and discipline, but he is also blessed with a special brain: an MRI scan has shown that his brain doesn’t register fear.”
What’s that got to do with innovation? Surprisingly, everything.
Why? Well, it turns out that things that induce anxiety create fear, and that we are conditioned to avoid things which create risk, real or imagined. Or to warn others of the inherent risks that they may have overlooked. (I suspect that my son thought his name was “careful” between the ages of one and three years old.)
McKinsey research shows that three particular fears have an acutely negative impact on corporate innovation:
- Fear of criticism
- Fear of uncertainty
- Fear of negative impact… on one’s career.
What was striking was that these fears are not ubiquitous across all organisations. These fears are much more prevalent in organisations which are considered to be average or lagging innovators. The authors of the McKinsey Report write:
“When we believe our decisions can put our advancement or compensation at risk, loss aversion takes the steering wheel and drives us to hedge our bets.” Ergo, we dial down the risky “innovative” behaviour. Read the full report here.
This matters. We are conducting an innovation workshop with a national collaborative body in the sustainability field. One of our first design questions was to consider the question “What’s at risk for participants?” While we can’t manage perceptions of external risks, we can build trust by starting with relationship building BEFORE getting busy with the work at hand. And in many ways, this points to the work at hand being about creating the conditions in which people feel safe to question, challenge, experiment, tear down and innovate. Innovation is simply what naturally creative, resourceful human beings then do inside the context of safety.
Our reality is that our corporate, educational and governmental institutions are not filled with Alex Honnolds. They are filled with me and you and people like us who consciously or unconsciously experience fear.
Our job as leaders is to create the conditions in which people experience less anxiety and fear, and are more easily able to connect to their innate creativity in order to bring the innovative thinking our planet so desperately needs.