Every year, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) conducts a survey of over 5,000 CEOs to assess trends and forecasts based on what these CEOs are seeing in the marketplace.
PwC’s global chairman on strategy analyzed the responses to this survey and identified two key trends that leaders need to be preparing for in 2021 and beyond. The first is urgent innovation, the ability to make quick pivots in the face of data contrary to your expectations. The second trend is fostering an environment of innovation that builds teams that feel comfortable generating bold potential solutions, turning those into actionable plans, and sharing their results after testing.
These concepts may seem like obvious goals that all leadership teams strive for, however, the reality is that most leadership teams struggle with empowering their teams for urgent innovation and the ability to empower their teams to be innovative.
This article is for people in those companies that tried new business ideas, regardless of whether they worked. Most leaders would agree that it’s important for their company to be innovative but struggle to empower their people.
Common things I hear from leaders are:
My team always comes to me (the leader) with problems but rarely with solutions,
I give my team complete autonomy, but they keep doing the same thing over and over again,
My team and I talk about being innovative all the time, it’s even in our core values, but we never find time to actually innovate.
When leaders run into these pitfalls and struggle to empower their teams, it’s usually for one (or both) of these reasons:
1. Leadership didn’t provide sufficient context, and the team fails to focus on the problem that needs to be solved or on the desired outcome being created.
2. Leadership failed at demonstrating psychological safety. You need to be willing to showcase your own mistakes and bad ideas in a way that invites others to share their own crazy, off-the-wall ideas.
The reason this article is titled Innovation with Bumpers is Better is because this approach is a simple way of solving both challenges from a leadership perspective.
Innovation with bumpers provides context to teams because it helps outline the problem being solved and the outcome being created.
For example, if you were to ask your team to cook you an entrée and stop there, that’s not enough context (i.e., too much autonomy). If you ask them to cook you an entrée after going to the grocery store, that still wouldn’t be enough because of the near-limitless combinations of ingredients your team must pick from. However, if you ask your team to cook an entrée from what’s available in your refrigerator now–that’s how you spark some creative solutions because there are a finite number of potential entrées your team could cook.
When you narrow down the problem scope and present clear context, it becomes much easier for them to innovate. The more open-ended your innovation process is, the less likely your team is to innovate because they don’t have enough context to innovate.
Bumpers are the context clues you provide your team based on your own experiences in the market. You still leave some problem aspects open-ended, but you focus them on achieving a specific desired outcome because you are facing a specific problem that needs a solution.
Innovation with bumpers also provides teams with the psychological safety necessary to innovate.
A great example of this is the honeypot example. A Canadian power line company faces the challenge every winter of getting snow off their power lines. Their solution has been hiring a person to climb up the wire poles and shake the snow off the lines one-by-one. Not only is this process dangerous, it’s also extremely expensive. Insurance premiums from this work are enormous, plus the one-by-one nature of de-snowing each pole is extremely inefficient.
This power line company was very clear about the problem that needed to be solved (removing snow from the power lines) and the solution it wanted but left the team open-ended on how to solve this challenge.
A team without psychological safety will defer to leadership to generate ideas because they fear what their leadership might think if they share an idea that seems nonsensical or absurd.
The reason this is called the honeypot story is because one of this company’s lowest level employees suggested putting honeypots on top of each pole and when bears smell the honey, they will try to climb up the poles for a snack and shake off the snow in the process.
Take a moment to let that sink in…what an insane idea!?!? For a low-level employee to feel comfortable enough to propose an idea like that, it shows a LOT about their level of psychological safety within their team.
And although the company didn’t end up using the honeypot idea, it did spark their eventual solution: hiring helicopters to fly by their power lines and using the wind from the helicopters to knock the snow off: a cheap, safe, and efficient solution.
Psychological safety in innovation doesn’t mean that people feel comfortable when proposing the ultimate idea. It just means they feel comfortable proposing ANY workable idea and help narrow down what the eventual idea might end up being.
One of the best ways to build psychological safety on a team is with vulnerability. As a leader, being vulnerable shows your team the emotional bumpers and that you don’t always have answers to every problem. Vulnerability also shows your team that you have made big mistakes and had awful ideas before and that those ideas help lead to better solutions. In the early days of Amazon, they had to pack their boxes on the floor, and Jeff Bezos suggested that the team needs knee pads; psychological safety helped an employee to say “No Jeff. We need packing tables”.
When I write “innovation with bumpers is better”, this means that if we can provide enough context and psychological safety to our teams, we are much more likely to empower them and build an environment of innovation.