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How to Create an Environment Where People Feel Safe to Innovate

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Peter Drucker 

This is a quote that many of us have heard a lot, but how often do we really take the time to think about just how real that is? 

If you are seeking to build an amazing product, you need to make sure you have a thriving culture that supports it. A thriving culture is something that is hard to achieve at the best of times, but a thriving culture of innovation is even harder. 

Why? Because with innovation, we are asking people to do something they are afraid of. We are asking people to share their ideas and run the risk of getting something wrong. 

As humans we are wired to avoid pain, and getting things wrong may end up with pain, hence many of us instead choose to hold back and avoid suffering.

So as businesses, we need to create an environment that supports people to step outside of themselves, to feel the fear and do it anyway.

To do that, we have to be creating an environment where people feel like they are amongst their most trusted, non shaming friends. The kind of friends that we safe to share our wildest dreams with, the kind of friends that we can fall on our face around and shrug it off with a wry smile.

My friends, my dearest hope for you is that you have at least one person in your life that you can show your messiest self to. Someone that you can be completely honest with, that you feel completely safe with. That can speak with about your failings and feel no shame. 

Finding that person, whatever role they hold for you, is a huge step in what it means to step into who we really are. 

Now if we think about that at an organisational level. If we want to build an environment where people feel safe to bring their whole self to work, to share ideas, to get things wrong and feel no shame, surely we need to be thinking about how we become the organisational equivalent of that one safe friend? 

No organisation can dictate that, it has to be the active, deliberate, intentional act of all of the humans within it. 

But the organisation can set the intention and hold us all true to it. Let me tell you how I think we might be able to get there.

STEP ONE

Each person learns about themselves, who they are, their values, their triggers. The challenge with this is that people generally start to step into self awareness at the time that works for them. The bet I am placing here is that some awareness is better than none, so at least some activities may help people to get closer to who they are. When we learn this for ourselves, we learn to be more forgiving and supportive of others, so it really needs to be the foundation. 

STEP TWO

This is where the team stuff can start to come in and we learn together why it matters that we build a solid foundation in our relationships. Everyone can therefore learn more about how relationships work and the behaviours that build and erode culture. You can work to build a team manifesto; namely a set of behaviours that you all agree to uphold to hold the integrity of your culture. You can also start to design how this

STEP THREE

We then learn about ourselves through the lens of others. This is where we get to learn about how to give and receive feedback well, and learn what our current impact on others is and start to think about how we create a better user experience. 

After each of these learning steps, there should be time for the testing step. Testing out what it means for us to build these new muscles within ourselves and then with others. 

We often make the mistake of trying to build culture with ‘tah dah’ moments. What I mean by that is that things that are often decided in a vacuum and then enforced on people. IMHO, a smarter approach is to work collectively, consult the user (employee) and get them invested in and working towards whatever you define your desired outcomes to be together. You then build on that with with incremental changes.

Incremental changes allow for us to stop, decide if it is working, then keep moving forward if it is.

This is what I am starting to think would really shift our collective experience of working together my friends, but I would love to hear from you about any of the things you are testing and trying right back. 

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