Courage – Critical Success Factor for Innovation
I was talking with a colleague yesterday and we were trying to determine why the Insurance Industry seem to be lagging in innovation. I have had my own theories about this based on my experiences on the inside, but my colleague crystallized a key component that I hadn’t given much weight to in my own thinking. He pointed out that it requires courage to innovate in a significant way. This struck me as utterly obvious and incredibly insightful at the same time. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, and I can’t seem to shake the idea that courage is a critical success factor for successful innovation. And courage is something many organizations are sorely lacking.
As leaders, we have a tendency to project our own feelings about a situation onto the organization we are a part of. In fact, it is a generally accepted view that organizations “take on” the personality of their leaders. My experience tells me that there are indeed many organizations that have cultures or “organizational personalities” that appear to be similar to their senior leaders. Does that mean that in order for an organization to have the necessary courage to make radical change and reinvent some significant component of their business, that all they need is a courageous leader? I would say necessary, but not sufficient. Ultimately I think we must build organizational cultures that are resilient, tenacious, and will persevere in the face of uncertainty and fear of the unknown. In other words, they are courageous.
What follows are some thoughts about ways to increase courage in an organization so that innovation can flourish.
Most definitions of courage tend to look something like this: “Courage is the ability and willingness to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation.” Innovation does require the ability and willingness to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, and maybe even intimidation. There have been other clever ways to describe this most revered virtue, like this one I am very fond of:
Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than the fear.
I think there is an important lesson in this quote. Courage is not about being fearless, it is about being scared to death and choosing to do something anyway. When faced with a compelling reason to change, whether it be a significant threat, or an attractive opportunity, there is always a significant helping of fear served along with it. When we have the fortitude to choose to go for it anyway, we are being courageous. Of course, that does not always mean it was a smart thing to do and failure is still a very real possibility. It is often the fear of the unknown that is our biggest challenge.
Developing Organizational Courage
If courage is a critical success factor for innovation, how do we develop this quality in our organizations? I believe it starts with the individuals. Every single individual struggles with a lack courage at times. But what terrifies me to the point where I cannot act in an organizational setting may not be the same thing that hooks you. What we all have in common are the difficult feelings surrounding this experience. It is the people in the organization who become paralyzed by the fear and who are left unable to take the steps necessary to innovate. So, the answer must be to develop courageous people. Some individuals in your organization may be very courageous and have little difficulty with the situations they find themselves in at work. Others may be so fearful that any deviation from the status quo will be met with extreme resistance. They are so concerned about the unknown, that they cling to the known status quo by any means necessary. For an organization trying to innovate, this resistance to change undermines the organizations ability to make significant progress.
One way of developing courage is to reduce the uncertainty. By learning more about what could happen, we are able to reduce our anxiety and decide if we will be able to handle the possible outcomes. Taking small risks to learn about the problem we are trying to solve helps to reduce uncertainty. If we create enough safety so that we can overcome the paralysis of fear and make an attempt, however small, we can gain knowledge and thereby reduce anxiety.
Imagine how two time Olympian snowboarder Shawn White felt as he decided to pursue the first Double McTwist 1260 trick. The consequences of missing that trick could be fatal. So he and his team built a foam pit into a custom half pipe they made in the Colorado backcountry. This reduced the uncertainty just enough to allow Shaun to work on that trick hundreds of times without killing himself in the process. Each time he learned more about it and what it would take to pull it off. Keep in mind that there were still dozens of things that could go wrong and he could still seriously injure or kill himself. For Shawn, that foam pit reduced the fear enough so he could give it a try. His courage could overcome the fear. He eventually landed that trick and with it, won a second gold medal.
A “this could kill me” fear is extreme and not usually the kind of fear we must overcome to enable innovation in organizations (although it can sometimes feel like it). There are many different fears that keep people paralyze and unable to act. What about having to have a difficult conversation with someone? When you believe that what you are about to tell them will cause them tremendous pain. No sane person wants to be the cause of someone else’s pain, but we face these situations all the time. The lack of courage to have a hard conversation is often behind an organization hanging on to an employee who is having a negative effect on the team. It takes courage to have that kind conversation and deal with the issue in a direct way.
What about reputational risk? Many individuals and organizations have an inherent response mechanism to avoid reputational risk. They will often hold back or wait to take action when they believe that they could experience a negative impact on their reputation. In the Insurance Industry, this is inherent in everything they do. Everyone instinctively knows that the reputation of the company is critical to success. Fundamentally, insurance is a promise to transfer the risk of some potential negative outcome. If the Insured believes the Insurance Company might not be able to keep that promise, they will look elsewhere for coverage. Insurance companies do everything in their power to avoid public perception that they might make a mistake, or do something foolish. It’s just good business for them to appear stable and solid. This understanding in their industry informs every decision that they make and therefore instills reluctance to change into the culture. It takes significant courage to drive innovation in such a culture.
Most industries have some form of reputational risk that drives fear into the hearts and minds of their people. If you are a retailer or credit card company, data loss is your worst nightmare right now. Imagine the angst they go through whenever a proposal is made to change anything remotely associated with data privacy?
All of these examples of lack of courage can stand in the way of necessary progress in organization. Without the courage to take some risk and start failing, innovation cannot occur.
I tend to believe that real leaders are voluntarily followed. If the people you “lead” are coerced or compelled to follow you, you are not leading, you are herding. So how can you lead people and inspire courage in them? You have actually been taught how to do this your entire life. Our culture reveres its heroes; those who overcome extraordinary circumstance by acting. We are constantly told inspiring stories about people who demonstrate courage by choosing to act even when faced with adversity. Whether it’s Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, or Sergeant York leading an attack on a machine gun nest in France during World War II, we celebrate the tremendous courage these individuals demonstrate, and we want to emulate them, to be like them. As a species we are social animals and the respect and admiration of our companions is inherently valuable to us. There is a great explanation of this in Simon Sinek’s latest book “Leaders Eat Last”.
So one way we can develop courage is to lead by example. When are organization is faced with adversity, as leaders we can choose to act. We have to do it prudently and honestly, but if we do, we inspire others to take action too. You can find evidence of this in your own experience. Watch a group of High School students at their first dance. In the beginning the dance floor is empty, everyone standing around the walls of the room. After some courageous couple takes to the floor, other join in. We all want to belong and to fit in. If everyone else is doing something, we want to do it to. Now that is the double edged sword because if everyone is fearful of the uncertain outcome, then everyone will want to stay with the group paralyzed not taking any action. When you watch that first couple dance and not die an embarrassing death, and your concept of the worst thing that could happen is inevitably altered. Once that happens enough and you decide it’s more important to dance with your partner than it is to avoid an catastrophic risk that now seems to be lessening in severity before your eyes, you can eventually act.
It is the uncertainty that creates the anxiety which paralyzes individuals within the organization and leaves them unable to act. To reduce uncertainty, it helps to take some small action in order to gain knowledge. That knowledge reduces the uncertainty. Sometime the knowledge that we gain results in a certainty that what we feared was absolutely correct! What happens next is the important bit; and it is the point at which individuals can have a profound impact. If we as an organization take that new knowledge and use it as validation to justify our lack of further action, we will not be successful. Alternatively, if we use that new knowledge to reduce the set of experiments we need to do to find a solution to the problem, we will continue to learn and iterate towards a solution. In the extreme case, it could be just one individual who makes a choice to act and through their action discovers new information that allows the team to see things differently and hopeful, to develop the courage to act again.
Courage Requires Confidence
As the pattern of taking small risks, and gaining knowledge repeats itself, other members of the team see that adversity can be overcome through consistent effort and learning. As the team members learn, they themselves become more confident in their own abilities and those of their colleagues. Eventually, the team is able to solve some of those problems they previously thought were “mission impossible” and their confidence is buoyed even more.
It is clear to me that team members’ confidence is inextricably linked to their confidence in the capabilities of their process to produce successful results. Building individuals confidence requires reinforcing their confidence by demonstrating success. That requires that everyone understand what success looks like, and when it has been achieved. Too many organizations fail to clearly define what success looks like and are therefore unable to recognize when they have achieved it.
It’s not enough for someone in a leadership position to recognize and proclaim success. To raise the confidence of individuals, they need to recognize success for themselves. And, if we prepare the individuals in the team to recognize success, they are not only aligned with what we are try to achieve, but it totally disables all the common excuses for falling back into the old status quo pattern of inaction. I cannot easily question the data, or cook up some manipulative conspiracy theory if I recognized our success myself.
Putting it All Together
So if you are trying to drive innovation in your organization, or within yourself, and you find you are unable to act, try some of these techniques and notice if they help you get unstuck. Every organization and every individual is different and will require a different approach. There is nothing revolutionary here; just a few ideas that might help you move forward. To summarize, I offer you two different ways of looking at the issue. One is more linear, and one is a diagram of effects. Hopefully something here will germinate an idea that will be helpful to you. Good luck, and keep trying.
We can identify a piece of the problem small enough that we have sufficient courage to go after it
We can make it clear to the team what success will look like
We try again when we fail
We provided sufficient transparency to so that each individual can recognize the success for themselves
We will be building confidence in the individual team members.
The team members will be more confident in themselves and each other, and will be more courageous.
The team is more courageous and will therefore be able to innovate faster and more successfully.
Success breeds success, or at least the courage to keep trying until success is achieve. You might say that the organization has be come more resilient in the face of adversity and more tenacious. In other words, more courageous.
What Do You Think?
I would love to know what you think about this. Please share your thoughts here n comments.