Worries about failure, criticism, and career impact hold back many people from embracing innovation. Here’s how to create a culture that accounts for the human side of innovation.
Five years ago, Alex Honnold scaled the sheer face of the 3,000-foot El Capitan escarpment alone and without ropes—the only person to have ever done so. Honnold has great skill and discipline, but he is also blessed with a special brain: an MRI scan has shown that his brain doesn’t register fear.
Innovation may not put you at risk of sudden death, but it is anxiety inducing nonetheless. It is more ambiguous than any other business activity, requiring bold bets in the face of uncertain outcomes and a willingness to persevere despite setbacks, criticism, and self-doubt. Which is why most teams, in moments of honest self-reflection, will agree that fear can paralyze innovation. In fact, 85 percent of executives we recently polled agree that fear holds back innovation efforts often or always in their organizations. Average or below-average innovators are three times more likely than innovation leaders to report this phenomenon. Yet nine out of ten organizations are doing nothing to allay these fears. In essence, they are counting on having Alex Honnolds among them to spearhead initiatives that others dare not attempt.
Given innovation’s critical importance to driving growth, that is a risky strategy. Leading innovators not only recognize the role that fear plays but also invest in building corporate cultures that pair the infrastructure necessary for success with a thoughtful design of employees’ emotional journey.
To understand what a successful innovation culture entails, we conducted a survey and in-depth interviews with executives around the world responsible for leading and executing innovation projects inside large organizations. We then looked for differences between how leading innovators (organizations ranked in the top quintile of innovation1 ) and all others tackle the fears that can hobble innovation efforts.
We found that the culture and employee experience of innovation correlate highly with an organization’s overall success at innovating. At the same time, fear is a constant for almost all practitioners. However, there are big disparities in the nature and intensity of that fear, as well as in how companies temper its negative impact.