High performing teams make the most mistakes
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide

What I have experienced during many hands-on experiences of the innovation space is that most of the focus is on creating the right diversity make-up of teams, and on making the physical space conducive to creativity and play. Sometimes this leads to innovation – and sometimes it doesn’t.

I have often marvelled why some of the teams I was part of had so much fun and created innovative product ideas in quite a short amount of time, while other teams just never got off the ground, which was all too evident in the lame solutions we came up with.

During my time of designing, organising and coaching ideation events, I realised that something was missing on the interpersonal level. Ultimately, this is what propelled me to change career and become a leadership coach.

That’s why I am excited about research that illuminates the link between innovation, psychological safety, and group dynamics. What’s more, this research illustrates how to create a fertile ground for an innovation culture and gives leaders some hands-on advice.

Amy Edmondson from Harvard has spent decades researching learning and innovation in organisations, and in her book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, she offers guidance on how to build an environment where innovation and growth will happen.

What is psychological safety, and why does it matter?

In a nutshell, psychological safety means feeling safe to be radically candid, disagree, point out mistakes, take risks, own up to mistakes, and ask for help.

When we do feel safe, it is because we know that we will not be punished for speaking up.

In most organisations, most people only speak up when they are quite sure that their higher ups will positively receive what they have to say.

I vividly remember once toying with joining an organisation which did things a bit differently than how I had learnt at the Design Thinking School. In a meeting, I asked about some specific tool they used, and the reaction was one of disbelief: “What, you don’t know that?” I felt ashamed, and insecure, and really not belonging there. That led me to not asking any more questions, lest I would be seen as incompetent. And yeah, I decided not to join that team.

Psychological safety makes or breaks companies.

Pixar, maker of Toy Story, Cars and Monsters, has had an unprecedented 17 box office hits in a row, in an industry the business model of which is that each box office hit has to pay for a good number of flops. Pixar’s company culture demands that you will share criticism and push back on ideas, all in service of creating ever greater movies.

The leaders of Wells Fargo on the other hand, had a great business model: Cross selling, which means selling ever more services to existing clients: They already have a bank account with Wells Fargo? Sell them another credit card. Then sell them a mortgage, a pension fund, … The bank’s leaders gave untenable goals to its employees. This, among other felonies, resulted in the creation of 2 million fake accounts, rather than push back on the business model of selling ever more unwanted products to existing customers with limited financial means.

At Pixar, leaders invite criticism and share their own mistakes freely. At Wells Fargo, push back was not allowed and this ultimately led to a huge Wall Street scandal and a CEO having to step down.

If you don’t have time to read the book, here’s three ground rules for creating a fearless organisation.

Amy Edmondson shares these in this short and insightful podcast with HBR IdeaCast:

1 Set the stage

Be clear about the strategic objective and get everyone on the same page about what you want to achieve. This is all the more important in a VUCA environment: The more uncertainty, complexity, and interdependence you face, the more important it is that you communicate your strategic objective clearly and let people know that their voice could make the difference between success and failure. And when your people have a stretch goal to achieve, you need to bring empathy, curiosity and a general interest in the human beings and not just the metrics.

2 Invite engagement

To invite people to speak up once is not enough. You need to be proactive and invite participation again and again. Here are some powerful questions:

What do you see out there?

What ideas do you have?

What help can I offer?

3 Really listen

People only speak up and share openly when they believe that their leaders care about them. Therefore, setting the stage and inviting engagement doesn’t make anything better if you don’t actually listen, fully open to what they have to say. This is harder than most people are aware of and might be the most underrated leadership skill.

You think you’ve got the listening all covered? Let me challenge you: How often do you listen to someone, and quickly the thought pops up: “I’ve heard this before. Nothing new here.” Or: “Oh, yeah, I so get that. Last time, I did this, I also … blah blah blah.” Both the “push back” and the “me too” reaction indicate that, in that moment, you are in your own little bubble and not truly open to what the other has to say. In short, you are “downloading” what you already know. We all do this all of the time, and we need to be aware and able to bounce back.

Honing your skills of listening is possible, and if you want to be a leader who successfully invites others to innovation and agency, then it is a must. Otto Scharmer and the Presencing institute have created a framework of the four levels of listening between which we need to be able to flexibly go back and forth to be effective leaders.

Just how important psychological safety is, was found out by google where for a long time researchers tried to find out in vain what key factors distinguished high performance from low performance teams. At the end of their wits, they stumbled on psychological safety!

Bottom line: No psychological safety, no innovation!


For leadership coaching and developement, get in touch

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