Safe Enough To Try

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Tightrope walking is a dangerous thing.  So is changing an existing process or doing something new at work.  People are scared.  Too scared to even try.  But it doesn’t have to be.  People need to be able to experiment safely. Innovation is inherently dangerous and without people willing to try it will never happen.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, said in an interview that the bar for trying things is this:

Is it safe enough to try?  It doesn’t matter if other employees think it’s a bad idea.  I can take that input.  But is it safe enough to try?

We talk about wanting to change, about wanting innovation or “disruptive thinking” but we’re scared to try.  Tony’s bar – is it safe enough to try? – is a relatively low bar but it’s high enough that the organization feels the risk is acceptable and low enough that the employee (or group of employees) feels that the organization is listening.

There are two ways that innovation can occur for an organization:  from the inside or from the outside.  Outside deals with the relationships from one organization to another and how those ultimately determine if a product is innovative and accepted or innovative and dead.  But how do you get that product?  How do you even know what to create?

And that is where inside innovation comes in. where the organization, where the employees, create the innovation necessary to succeed.  Unrelenting Innovation: How to Build a Culture for Market Dominance tells how the culture of an organization is the key to innovation.  In particular:

  • a willingness to cannibalize existing products,
  • a risk-taking attitude and
  • the ability to focus on the future

Cultural Acceptance

The culture must be willing to accept the risk.  The culture needs to feel that the risk is “safe enough”.  The problem is that in many cultures there is no level of “safe enough”.  Years, perhaps decades of embodying the idea that “anything less than perfection is failure” can create a culture that abhors innovation, abhors creativity and is too scared to try.  Nothing is “safe enough”.

So how do you change a culture that embodies stagnation as the only thing that is safe?  You need to find and nurture those that don’t mind failure, that don’t mind taking a chance.  From the top down you need to embrace failure as a possibility, something not to be avoided, but to be learned from.  You need to set the boundaries for “safe enough’ that are beyond what people expect.  People are expecting “no failure” boundaries and you need to set them beyond those limits.  Think of it as a “stretch goal” in your performance review.  And from the bottom?  You need to understand that the organization is fragile, scared and unable to think in big terms.  Find those people who embrace a challenge and stick with them.  You need to find those leaders willing to step out from hiding and embrace the unknown.  And most of all, be patient.

But not too patient.  As the culture of “safe at any cost” continues it becomes more and more difficult to change and without leadership wanting change there is going to be little desire to change.

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