Imagine a senior leadership team telling their entire department to “go take a risk.”
Ginny Santos and I recently completed a four-month engagement with a client who told their department exactly that.
Last summer, we got the call. Our client was looking for a way to engage staff in an experience that would help them make concrete and internalize the requirement to “be more innovative.”
Like many organizations, our client has established a corporate strategic direction that asks leaders and their teams to make innovation a standard practice in their day-to-day work. In this client’s world, the strategic ask is for departments to:
Foster a culture of innovation and engage in business innovation.
What does that mean?
What Is a Culture of Innovation?
Well, like many organizations, the specifics aren’t clear. Senior leaders haven’t defined what they mean by “innovation” and the delivery and manifestation of this strategy is left to the interpretation of individual departments and their business units. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because innovation isn’t “one size fits all.”
However, to get the most out of a strategic direction for innovation, someone in the organization (typically departmental or divisional leaders) needs to ask the “who, what, where, when, why and how we will innovate?” questions. And that’s exactly how this client handled the lack of specific direction on innovation from the top of their organization.
The client shared this about their work environment:
- There was a headcount freeze and a concern that demands of work were growing. Faced with limits on their resources, the environment was ripe for assessing, not how to do more with less, but rather where could we do less work? The leadership team was interested in having staff assess what they could stop doing that wasn’t contributing real value in the organization, and opportunities to streamline existing processes, thereby saving employees time and effort. They certainly didn’t want staff to feel they had to take on more work in an already time-pressured work environment.
- There was great diversity in the work between business units in the department. However, everyone played a role in supporting senior executives in the organization in some way – either through strategic planning, support to the board of directors, in meeting the demands of their day-to-day work, or in supporting governance functions.
- Employees generally perceived the requirement to “be more innovative” as a “side of the desk” activity that would suck time out of their day and keep them from moving through their already lengthy to-do lists.
- At a corporate level, the organization had made a statement recognizing that risks were a natural and needed part of the innovation strategy. In fact, the corporation established guidelines around taking risks and outlined the parameters of its risk appetite so that the necessary change in the organization and benefits of innovation could be realized. The challenge was, no staff members in this department were lining up to tell their senior executives about risks and changes they wanted to take, fearing failure and other perceived repercussions.
- The nature of the work of the department meant the senior leadership team wanted to avoid having people away from the job for more than half a day to do a learning event – anymore and participation by many staff would be at risk due to work demands.
So, what did we do?
How Do You Teach Risk-taking?
We immediately floated the idea of offering our Taking a Risk on Innovation course.
The course met the time criteria – it could be delivered in half a day, it scales easily to any size audience on an intact team, and it works to help individuals explore their practices and preferences for risk-taking.
And, to build a bridge to engaging in risks necessary to producing innovation, course participants would brainstorm what they would need in their workplace to feel safe to take innovation risks.
The client loved what we had to offer.
From there we asked a simple question: which is more important to you?
Do you want to give people a cognitive understanding of the importance of taking risks to produce innovation?
Do you wish to produce changes in behaviour around risk taking and innovation?
The client’s answer: they needed to create long-term changes in behaviour around risk taking and innovation.
Knowing that time and availability of leaders and staff in the department were limited and pressured, we designed a learning process that mirrored a typical innovation journey and aligned the learning to corporate and departmental strategies for innovation and engaging in risk. It included pre- and post-training activities that would help the senior leadership team lead the learning in the organization that would create the necessary changes in behaviour.
Our objective was to make the call “to be more innovative” relevant, personal, practical and desirable for everyone on the team. To meet this objective, the post-training innovation process that Ginny and I designed:
- Engaged individuals on each team in creating a safe risk manifesto for their team so everyone on the team—leader included—was accountable to norms for behaviour that would make it safe to engage in intelligent risk-taking when innovating
- Had each team identify and implement an innovation experiment they were willing to take a risk on doing; the experiment had to be initiated but didn’t have to be completed before a planned culminating event
- Provided decision criteria and guidelines around the kinds of “innovation” that was wanted: in a nutshell, find things that we could stop, start or continue to do—only better—without adding resources, without asking for more budget, and that were within their control and responsibility to change
- Had each team reflect on their experiment, and prepare a story to share with the entire department about the successes and failures surrounding their experiment and what they learned about taking risks when innovating. Whether the experiment was still in progress or completed at the timing of this learning step, all teams were to reflect on and share their experience thus far in a culminating event.