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How Can You Innovate Amid Fear?

Abstract Background by Darren Hester on FlickrI’m fascinated by all the advice to innovate our way through this crisis (April 09 Harvard Business Review) (March 19, 2009 Business Week) (March 2009 Fast Company), etc.

Yes, innovate we must. However, that’s darn hard to do right now. Not just because R&D budgets are slashed, or because execs are doing what used to be several jobs while negotiating with suppliers and laying people off. But also because they are faced with one of the toughest leadership challenges in uncertain times: focusing what’s left of their teams – and themselves – on making smart decisions amid fear and uncertainty.

Right now those demands for decisions are coming faster than ever as channels morph, as suppliers restructure, as regulations change, and as government investments shift. These times require greater capacity for rapidly assimilating information, thinking creatively, and making decisions amid greater uncertainty.

As I visit organizations and interview people across industries, I’m seeing quite a bit of dysfunctional – yet normal — responses to fear:

  • Spinning wheels: “Until our CEO confirms which operations we’re closing, I can’t do anything.”
  • Hunkering down: “We’ve cancelled team meetings because we’re all too busy, and I have no idea what to tell my team anyway”
  • Spacing out: “My team members are either staring out the window or doing who knows what on their iPhones.” (I, too, like Twitter , but the answers to my toughest challenges are not likely to be posted there any time soon.)
  • Freaking out: “I was so panicky I had to go find an empty conference room for half an hour until I could breathe normally again.”
  • Checking out: “Since I’m probably going to be laid off in the next wave, and it will take months to find another job, I better start now.”

Clearly, none of this behavior contributes to the extraordinary innovation recommended in the business press. Innovation benefits from an environment of questioning, risk, openness, patience, and trust (most recently described in Judy Estrin’s Closing the Innovation Gap) Necessity may be the mother of invention, but good research shows us that fear often spawns rigidity, not innovation.

Leaders who want to succeed through innovation must turn this around on three levels: organization/strategy, team, and individual (including themselves).

In understanding individual reactions, two psychological concepts can be helpful:
Threat Rigidity: In the face of stress we tend to become less flexible in our responses and also want someone else to make decisions (Staw’s foundational article)
Expressive Suppression: When we try to hide our emotional reactions, our ability to remember what we’re hearing and respond usefully goes way down (Stanford story) In addition, when suppressing emotional expressions people are more physiologically reactive (e.g., higher BP) which makes it more difficult to concentrate and remember as well.

Militaries have created training programs and organizational ecosystems to deal with these factors and others that emerge under stress. By contrast, most business organizations and NGOs are inexperienced at managing chronic fear, and military solutions don’t port neatly to these environments.

So what can you do to create the conditions for innovative thinking and smart decision-making while your organization is navigating rough seas?

Create and move forward on flexible plans

  • Use discovery-driven planning with if-then scenarios, so you can communicate confidence in your decisions and prepare your people to move rapidly on market feedback
  • Schedule regular reality-checking analysis, to keep those plans fresh
  • Continue (or restart) regular and event-driven conversations across the organization, to minimize some of the dysfunctional behaviors above and gain the benefits of questioning, openness, and trust (Mario’s post on Trust)
  • Enable slack, even while you run lean. While you may not be able to afford Google’s 20% give people time to think if you want them to think differently (Wheatley’s A Simpler Way is a must-read if you’re wondering why people and systems need some slack to evolve.)

Manage the pressure cooker

  • Be thoughtful about which stressors to let roll to your team and which stop with you
  • Practice “adaptive leadership” setting the expectation of experimentation and learning that is essential to innovation
  • Time tough communications when people have capacity to listen; don’t expect people to take in extensive verbal messages in tense group settings
  • Communicate in ways that are genuine and human, and watch your subtle cues as a leader that signal whether “it’s OK here” to show real reactions, or whether those reactions have to stay bottled up.

Keep your personal resilience high

  • Make firm commitments to do the top couple things that keep you healthy and sane, e.g. working out, eating well, sleeping 7 hours, hanging out with your kids
  • Choose to look at situations in ways that keep your own panic in check. The same research that shows how “expressive suppression” blocks memory also supports the growing evidence that cognitive framing – how you describe the situation to yourself – is your most important lever for remaining constructive.

I’d be glad to hear how you and your organization are creating the conditions for innovation through challenging times.

Photo credit: Abstract Background by Darren Hester on Flickr /

About the author

Pam Fox Rollin Pam Fox Rollin is a valued thought-partner to corporate and NGO leaders navigating their organizations through complex change. Her work as an Executive Coach and Speaker draws on 20 years experience, including strategy consulting (Bain, Accenture), management education (Guest Fellow, Stanford GSB), leadership research, and community leadership. You can also find Pam on her Twitter page and company IdeaShape Coaching & Consulting

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Posted in General Leadership, Opinion.

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