Actions to Reduce Fear and Innovation Failure

Actions to Reduce Fear and Innovation Failure - Innovation ExcellenceFear is one of the avoidable elements that often lead to innovation failure.   This concept is identified in PA Consulting Group 2015 report titled “Innovation as Unusual”.

The fear is generated by negative management reactions to past innovation ideas, failures and risks. In addition, fear negatively affects attitudes, behaviors, management styles, and organization culture that inhibit creativity and innovation. This occurs at the personal level as well as in the organization as a whole. As a result, reducing fear in the organization is a critical and complicated component for a successful innovation program.

When looking at the various types of fear, fear of the unknown dominates.   Fear within an organization can also be driven by the fear of lose. These include the fear of losing face, prestige, position, favor or a job. And, of course, there exists the fear of failure. This is a strong fear preventing positive action in an organization, while promoting inaction and unproductive behavior. Fear is a powerful force. If left unmitigated, fear can undermine an innovation program.

Fear inhibits innovation by hiding failures, suppressing new ideas, and avoiding bringing risky concepts to senior leaders’ attention. Alan Kuyatt of the University of Maryland wrote “Managing for Innovation: Reducing the Fear of Failure” that describes the impact of fear and management actions.

“Leadership practices that discourage innovation must be replaced with ones that encourage innovation, including accepting risk, viewing failure as a learning opportunity, allowing sufficient time for innovative ideas to develop, and encouraging champions to help overcome resistance and find resources. Management needs to make the organization an ambidextrous operation that can continue to improve the efficiency of current products and services with incremental innovation, while simultaneously encouraging the discovery, adoption, and implementation of radical innovations, without the fear of failure, to increase the organization’s ability to be competitive.”

Identifying the fear is needed before being able to determine a plan to lessen or remove it from the group. Fear is not in plain view.   It is masked. It manifests as negative or unproductive behavior. As described in the book “The Psychology of Fear in Organizations” by Sheila Keegan, fear exhibits itself in an organization in the following forms:

  • Frustration
  • Powerlessness
  • Lack of control
  • Frenetic pace of life
  • No time for reflection
  • “Doing” not “Being”
  • Alienation
  • Toxic environment
  • Emotional withdrawal
  • Loss of identity
  • Disengagement

Imagine an organization where several people are exhibiting the above symptoms of fear, including some members of the management team. It is not a conducive workplace for new ideas. These behaviors and feelings drive a need for control.   The idea being if the fear based behaviors can be under control, they can be managed and possibly eliminated. The need for control results in one or a combination of a command hierarchical/structure, a target culture and/or withdrawal.

Command Hierarchy
A recognizable feature of a command hierarchy is the organization chart of superiors, subordinates and the lines of communication. It establishes who reports to whom. It helps divide and assign decision-making authority within the organization. Work is pushed down for the lower levels of the hierarchy to perform, while needed decisions that are outside a staff member’s authority are pushed up to an appropriate level for resolution.

Target Culture
A target-based culture relies on performance monitoring, target setting for individuals, departments and boards. It follows the saying “what gets measured, gets done.” The targets provide useful guides for management, and productivity goals for staff. As long as targets are set and progress is monitored on a regular periodic basis, the process is under control. The monitoring, however, raises levels of fear and anxiety. There exists an implied implication for missing the target. It can also undermine morale, employees’ sense of worth, autonomy, performance and productivity. The target culture increases conformity and hinders creativity.

Employee withdraw is a common form of disengagement. Withdrawal can take the form physically or psychologically. Physical behaviors are the easiest to identify.  They exist in the form of absenteeism, employee lateness/tardiness, as well as, higher turnover. Psychologically speaking, disengagement appears as apathy, passivity, lack of creativity, and conducting minimal effort.

What develops is a cycle of fear (staff and management) resulting in unproductive behavior that drives a desire for more control. The added control in turn conjures more fear. This cycle strangles creativity at the personal level, and inhibits innovation at the organizational level.Trust to Fear

Antidote to Fear and the Control Culture
One antidote to fear is encouraging an organizational culture that enables trust.   Trust develops from relationships with open and engaged participants motivated to pursue a common goal. Trust in organizations is vital. Employees and management, who are trusting and trusted, are more productive and cooperative. This is compared to the fearful staff described above that engage in counter productive behavior. Keep in mind, human relationships are complex and it can take time to establish the level of trust needed to enable innovation.

The trust develops from key actions and attitudes. In doing so, management can steer the organization without being controlling or defaulting to a control culture.   Specifically, trust is built upon:

  • Emergent Culture or a Hive Focus
  • Egalitarianism
  • Relationships & Engagement

The hive model encourages greater flexibility in working relationships because employees have more freedom to consult with peers without being overburdened by hierarchy. This encourages more initiative. A hive approach encourages people to learn from each other, take initiative and experiment. Doing so fosters more innovation. It also helps reduce fear and anxiety because groups of like-minded people become pro-active and self-supporting. The hive culture leverages components of emergence, self-supporting groups arising from greater autonomy. Emergence is a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties. In this case, it is individuals working together, self-organizing, self-supporting, within the boundaries established by management, to attain the common goal. That is to say, hives appear.

Self Supporting Groups
Self-supporting groups are like-minded, pro-active individuals that organize themselves around specific objectives. These groups are allowed to form in an egalitarian organizational structure that views all as co-contributors. Some may see this as a flatter organizational structure and typically seen in larger companies with discreet, set roles. The management of these groups is based on the relationships among the group members, as well as the engagement of leadership to ensure the staff has the skills and tools needed to achieve the objectives.

Great Autonomy
These self-supporting groups that emerge from the hive mentality are granted greater autonomy from management while functioning within certain boundaries, working through specific strategies. The boundaries and strategies are set and updated by management. The leaders of the organization can manage the teams but adjust the boundaries and strategies.

Pro-Active Workforce
With great autonomy, the group naturally forms around the objectives. They do what needs to be done with management guidance and do not require specific direction and monitoring.

Components of Trust

Management can take specific actions to reduce fear, increase trust, and encourage innovation. These actions foster emergence and the hive culture while shifting away from the control culture.

  • Develop a business strategy
  • Communicate a clear vision for the future and how innovation supports the strategy
  • Demonstrate a commitment to innovation through management’s own actions to reduce fear
  • Communicate the level of risk acceptable to management
  • Reiterate that everyone is responsible for the development of innovative thinking
  • Communicate that small organizational risks are part of everyone’s job, not just senior leaders
  • Foster greater individual autonomy
  • Grant people freedom to take action without permission within established boundaries based on strategy
  • Reassure employees to be innovative
  • Provide appropriate resources and training for staff to be innovative
  • Encourage healthy dissent and diversity with the self supporting groups
  • Develop innovation talent at all levels of the organization
  • Encourage trial and error
  • Encourage “pilots” and experimentation, not perfection
  • Celebrate failure and effort; learn from the failure; communicate the learning
  • Reduce the number of target and performance monitoring

Changing the culture is a powerful way to shift from fear to trust. The reduction of fear is just one of many components that allows for the seeds of innovation to take root and grow. With an emergent culture, a positive cycle emerges of self-supporting groups with greater autonomy that can become more proactive. This cycle fosters trust between co-contributors as well as with management. The relationships built on trust are the keystone of a culture allowing for new ideas, trial and error, acceptable failure, and continual learning. As a result, innovation is less likely to be restricted or inhibited due to fear.

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Daniel Nolan is the Founder & Chief Idea Guy/Principal Consultant at Denovo, an innovation consulting group, where he partners with clients to promote sustainable growth and build innovation capabilities. Daniel developed the Rapid Deployed Innovation System (RDIS) and Holistic Integrated Innovation Framework (HIIF). His company is dedicated to a holistic approach based on real world consulting experience, psychology of the creative process, and current academic research.

Daniel Nolan




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