To Stoke Innovation, Fight Your Biases

Innovation isn't just about the ideas people create, but the environment leaders provide to inspire them. A look at unconscious biases can stoke the creativity you need.

Innovation is essential to an organization—all it means, at its core, is being able to come up with new ideas, and your association hasn’t survived without doing that a few times. Why, then, is it such an intimidating concept for so many?

When people feel they don’t need to be afraid to raise an issue or present an idea, teams work better.

Jim Harrison, senior creative director at the University of Florida, pinpointed one reason why in a post earlier this month at John Spence’s blog. Organizations like to talk about implementing innovation processes, but innovation doesn’t thrive on structure; indeed, it needs something closer to the opposite. Innovation requires creativity, and “creativity as a process is messy,” Harrison writes. “It’s a different, never-the-same-twice, unpredictable adventure.”

Now, as a leader, you probably have limited patience for an adventure. But take heart: The right environment for innovation, Harrison explains, isn’t a free-form, metrics-impaired, deadline-less sandbox so much as a collective mindset that encourages exploration. Getting to that place requires some work, though. Last month, I wrote about how we might make conversations about innovation less intimidating by framing them as conversations about the future. Harrison drills a little deeper: If we’re going to have creative teams in our organizations, we need to address the biases that stifle creativity.

“When people feel they don’t need to be afraid to raise an issue or present an idea, teams work better,” he writes. “We’ve all seen it: In a meeting or conversation, the fear of ridicule often collides with imposter syndrome and other fears of job security and office politics to undermine our ability to feel safe in sharing our thoughts, ideas, and perspectives.”

That fear of raising issues can have a lot to do with unconscious biases, studies have shown. If a leader is talking the talk about innovation but doesn’t hear out new ideas, or only hears out ideas from certain people, all the rhetoric about nurturing a creative environment won’t mean much. Last month my colleague Rasheeda Childress spoke with leadership consultant Michael Brainerd, who draws a direct line between unconscious bias and stifled innovation. “Innovation usually comes from discomfort or challenges,” he said. “If I am constantly seeking comfort and not allowing myself to make mistakes or process new data, it’s going to be hard to innovate.”

To that point, Harrison’s dream environment for innovation emphasizes inclusivity and collaboration, plus a willingness to face uncomfortable subjects head-on. “Projecting the confidence and willingness to embrace the uncomfortable is where you can truly inspire your employees,” he writes.

I encountered one example of this in the association world when, for the winter issue of Associations Now, I spoke with the creators of the Jewelry Industry Summit, a meeting of leaders in an industry where motivations and goals often diverge. As founder Cecilia L. Gardner explained, it worked because, despite that divergence, the summit had a polestar issue that many were hesitant to address—responsible sourcing—and created a judgment-free zone where participants were invited to bring their best ideas.

The goal, Gardner said, was “preventing people from turning away from engaging in responsible sourcing because it’s too complicated, too burdensome, and too complex.”

Substitute “responsible sourcing” with whatever tricky challenge your association or its industry faces, and you have a mission statement for your own innovation initiative. “Cultures of curiosity with high psychological safety will naturally gravitate towards this level of comfort with the unknown,” Harrison writes. So in the long run, the question you’re facing isn’t “How will you innovate?” Instead, it’s “How will you create a fearless and inclusive culture of curiosity?”

And so I ask you: How have you helped to encourage a creative, innovative environment in your association? Share your experiences in the comments.

(IndypendenZ/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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