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Innovation & Emotional Safety PART I

AcxiomMay 11, 2016

One of my favorite management topics is the importance of emotional safety as a foundation to driving creativity in individuals and innovation in teams. To begin, let me deal with a related issue that is one of the great modern fallacies regarding teamwork: the phrase “There is no ‘I’ in team.” The implication is that the individual and their ego have no place in productive teams focused on a goal. Everything that is achieved is achieved by the team; every failure is a failure of the team. No one person is above or outside of this band of equals and, to bring one’s individuality into a discussion, whether within the team or when discussing results outside the team, is both inappropriate and counterproductive.

Well, please take a look at the picture below and say the word. It is pronounced “Teem”. So there can be an I in team, seemingly silent. Yet, the I is very able to express itself as “I am”. Not a silent I, after all, just a quiet one.

TeiamAs mentioned in my previous post, innovation is a team activity, but creativity is an individual one. And since innovation is an emergent property of creativity, by definition there has to be room for “the ‘I’ in Teiam”. This means that individual contributions are recognized within AND alongside the team, that it is as appropriate to say “I made this unique contribution to our efforts” as “The team built a truly amazing and unique product.”

But what has “the ‘I’ in Teiam” got to do with emotional safety? It turns out they are actually two sides of the same coin.

I believe that the ability to create is a fundamental human trait. Every person that has ever existed or will exist is a creative being. While many of us can create in many different ways and venues, my experience is that individuals have one, or at most two, ways that their creativity most naturally expresses itself – what David Kelley the founder of IDEO once described to me as “being in your groove.” My job as a manager of creative teams is to discover what each individual’s “groove” is and guide them to bring that creativity to bear for the benefit of the team or the company. Being in your groove represents an individual’s artistic mode. When you tap into it, you are allowing the individual to truly be an artist and to bring an artist’s passion to bear on a problem.

Michelangelo used to say that the marble already contained the statue, and his job was to find it. But finding it – that was the trick. The same is true with great innovation. It already resides in the minds of the team, as ideas that are ephemeral and often embedded in deeply personal artistry. This is why when inventing something new, the individual has to be willing to explore not only their own ideas but also their own self. The “quiet I” – the mind and heart of the artist – is the marble from which invention emerges. The team takes all the inventions that emerge from individual artistry and innovates with and through them.

Creating is a messy act. It is a painful act. It involves driving thinking, emotions, and their link to the physical to their limits. When you invent something truly amazing, you are, in a way, giving birth. In this process there will be a lot of false starts, many bad ideas, and many pratfalls over one’s own limitations as the creator stumbles toward something brilliant. For most people, it is hard to breach the prison of our own internal self-criticism for long enough to endure that process. To do this in a public/team environment where people could judge you as being stupid, inane, or worse, is unthinkable.

Thus the need for emotional safety. And I am not talking about emotional safety within the structured environment of a brainstorming session where a knowledgeable moderator will make the room a “no judgment zone” for the duration of the brainstorming. A few hours of artistic license cannot offset the deeply engrained restraints created by years of continual self-consciousness and self-suppression caused by the fear that others will misjudge you (and thus, for example, reduce your likelihood of promotion).

I am talking about making the work environment itself emotionally safe, a “no judgment zone” where the only measure of success is performance against mutually-agreed to goals. In a no judgment zone, all members are equally flawed but also all equally free to be exactly who they are, with the caveat that you cannot demean or be disrespectful. They are able to be emotionally vulnerable and thus can openly explore their personal artistry. The result is an environment where failings are not weaknesses, but strengths. An environment where everyone is willing and comfortable trying anything, saying anything, doing anything to solve a specific problem. From this openness comes the ability to create great products – products that, like great works of art, have the potential to touch the fundamental humanity of others, or processes that improve the lives of those who work with us.

So what specific actions can a manager take to provide an environment that allows for this creativity? My next post will cover this, and will connect the dots between “the ‘I’ in Teiam” and emotional safety.