Tag Archives: risk

Innovation’s Executive Trust Trap

27 Feb


In the March edition of the Harvard Business Review, David DeSteno gives some useful advice to help increase the level of trust inside organisations (summary at the end of this blog).

I’m currently working with a guerilla negotiator to help a major record label untangle the trust issue.  Why?  Because trust and innovation performance are dynamically related, and the music industry needs innovation.

Managers who don’t trust their teams don’t encourage innovation for risk of ‘screw-ups’.  Employees who don’t trust their managers aren’t motivated to take risks for fear of screw-up repercussions.

Capability and character are two useful lenses to consider why trust is lacking; but often the deeper root issue is a culture of fear within the organisation that few executives are ever happy to acknowledge.  The idea seems ludicrous to them.

Yet a senior manager in one of the world’s biggest cell phone companies recently told me that despite an outward reputation for innovation, employees are petrified to take the smallest of risks. “It’s hard enough to survive here, let alone try something new,” he told me. There’s even widespread anxiety about talking to customers for fear of hearing something that would contradict management’s vision of success.

So why the guerilla negotiator?  It’s part of a wider program to build leadership innovation capability in multiple dimensions, but the negotiator is an expert trust builder amidst conditions of extreme uncertainty and ambiguity.  Something that most executives are becoming increasingly familiar with.

Finally, here are David DeSteno’s proposed tips from the Harvard Business Review article to prompt trustworthiness in new or potential partners’ behavior:

  • Be generous. Feelings of gratitude foster trustworthy behavior. 
Giving new partners a reason to feel grateful to you is a win-win: They benefit in the short term from your generosity, and you reap the rewards of their loyalty.
  • Find commonality. Emphasizing common ground increases the likelihood that your counterpart will see you as someone with whom it’s possible to build a lasting and beneficial relationship.
  • Don’t punish. Threats of punishment can prevent untrustworthy behavior in the moment but can be counterproductive in the long term: new partners may be less likely to take risks to support one another.

De-risking Innovation the Smart Way

4 Jan

Taking Smart Risks book coverIf there’s one thing guaranteed to lighten the pallor of an executive’s face, it’s the suggestion of taking more risk.

Need more breakthrough innovation? Sure. What’s the catch? The clue is in the adjective: breakthrough innovation requires a degree of breakage en-route. That means taking risks that don’t always pay off.

It stands to reason: in a turbulent, uncertain and complex economic climate there are few ‘knowns’. New product development in particular has become a voyage into the unknown with companies using intelligent trial and error techniques such as Lean Start Up.

But in most cases, the perceived negative implications of a risk-gone-wrong stifles the very innovation that organisations so desperately need.

That makes Doug Sundheim’s Taking Smart Risks: How Sharp Leaders Win When Stakes Are High a timely and welcome guide for organisations that want to do just what the title says.

Five steps to smarter risk-taking

Doug gave me a sneak preview of the book before Christmas and I found it to be a rare and accessible blend of research, insight, wisdom and practical tools that deserves a place in every executive briefcase.

Taking Smart Risks offers readers five smooth stones to slay the ‘fear-giants’ that crush smart risk-taking in their organisations:

1. Find Something Worth Fighting For

  • Something Worth Fighting For (SWFF) is what all smart risks have in common.
  • It must be simple, stir emotion, lend itself to a story or narrative and inspire action.

2. See the Future Now

  • Ask questions, understand concerns, test the concept behind your ideas, and predict as many fail points in advance as you can.
  • Have an open, honest conversation with trusted people around you to determine what is the worst that could really happen.

    Doug Sundheim

    Doug Sundheim

3. Act Fast, Learn Fast

  • Start before you know where to start, fail early, often, and smart – build learning into everything and stay humble.
  • Accept that you have to live with failure – since it is an inevitable by-product of taking risks, even smart risks. Failing smart is the best way to learn.

4. Communicate Powerfully

  • Expect communication to breakdown and plan accordingly.
  • Share thought processes, meet regularly, and don’t avoid difficult conversations.

5. Create a Smart Risk Culture

  • Define a smart failure – the acceptable boundaries within which it is okay to fail.
  • Reward both the successes and these smart failures.

Every chapter ends with a clutch of useful tools to help readers de-risk risk-taking. If you’re short on time, just read the handy chapter summaries and start playing with the techniques that Sundheim suggests.

If you’re serious about innovation, growth or even plain survival, risk-taking is non-negotiable. Sundheim’s book doesn’t guarantee a failure-free future (what a relief as so much crucial learning happens when we fail!), but it will help leaders and managers in every organisation improve the quality of their risk taking.

The hardcover and Kindle versions of Taking Smart Risks: How Sharp Leaders Win When Stakes Are High are out now.

The Joy of Screwing Up

30 Sep

Removing fear from failure is one of the fastest ways to accelerate innovation

We all love shortcuts.  Probably the most frequent short-cut question I get asked right now is: “How can we fast-track a culture of innovation in this place?”

That’s a post for another day; but one of the follow up questions I’ll often pose back is, “What’s it like to fail here?”

It’s a great ‘treasure map’ question as it unearths important cultural gems and gives a good indication of the attitude towards innovation at a senior level.

Failure to fail well is one of the biggest blockers to creativity and innovation.

Without failure, you can’t expect much that is truly new to emerge.  In organisations for whom innovation is a genuine strategic priority, idea failure rates of up to 70% are seen as acceptable.  (What’s acceptable inside your organisation?  It’s a great question to ask at the next CEO breakfast.)

As we all know, in most organisations failure is anathema.  You just don’t do it.  If it happens it is ignored, ‘repositioned’ or quietly tucked away in a cupboard on the 17th floor.

But things get very interesting when you have a CEO who genuinely loves failure.  A CEO who cracks up when someone screws up. A CEO who looks for opportunities to boast about failures.

That’s real life inside the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM), one of the world’s most innovative music industry schools.

Beautiful Screw-Ups

At the ACM, people talk about “beautiful screw-ups”.  People who screw-up become the butt of jokes (some of which last for years).  Their failures spread like wildfire around the Academy.  (Sounds horrific doesn’t it?).

But where the ACM differs from other organisations is that people actually enjoy the process, even encourage the process.  They all know that it’s done in jest and that serious lessons have been learned and applied for the future.

How do I know all this? I’ve been the butt of some of their jokes.  OK, a lot of their jokes.  We’ve been partnering with them for a couple of years on an insane innovation leadership experience that we run for brands who really want to push the innovation needle.  (It’s not for the faint-hearted; just ask the leaders from Sony and Telefonica O2 who have braved it so far).

ACM reeks of failure but it doesn’t smell bad, because people don’t see it as a bad thing.  If people know that they aren’t going to get fired for failing they are much more likely to take risks around what they are passionate about.  And if your workforce is fully engaged with strategy, that passion ultimately gets focused on increasing competitive advantage in both incremental and disruptive ways.

Companies that are serious about innovation have to lighten up about failure.  Sure, learning must come from mistakes and parameters have to be in place (a 70% failure rate won’t be appropriate for everyone, and failure through incompetence is not what we are talking about here).

But if you need a shortcut to bigger, bolder ideas for the sake of competitive advantage, decide to start seeing a funnier side to screw-ups.

Enjoy this?  Then try this free ebook: Innovation Playlist: 11 innovation lessons from the video game and music industries


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