Updated: Sep 4, 2021
How psychological safety can help foster innovation
Try this. Get hold of a group of people, mostly strangers, and have them gather at the opposite side of a large room. Now run very fast towards them and, just before you reach them, leap off the ground and let yourself fly through the air.
Sounds a crazy thing to do and one which is not too healthy if they fail to catch you — yet it is a typical warm up exercise in the world of theatre. Groups of actors gather together to try and create a theatrical experience which will be memorable, drawing an audience into a journey of imagination. And in order to innovate in this fashion they need some core skills around building a sense of support for each other as they take risks and explore new ways of delivering that experience.
Flying through the air and hoping someone will catch you is a powerful way of developing that sense of support — and it underlines a key element in our understanding of what makes for effective innovation. We need a sense of psychological safety. Innovation isn’t a solo act, never has been. It’s a team sport, a multiplayer game in which interaction amongst members helps create value from ideas. And a lot of innovation, particularly of the more radical variety, is about making it up as you go along — improvisation.
Having an overall sense of where you want to get to but not being entirely clear about how you’ll get there. It’s about groping our way through a fog, bumping into plenty of unexpected obstacles along the way. It’s about trying things out, experimenting and learning fast from what doesn’t work. The whole ‘agile innovation’ model is predicated on this cycle of probe and learn, reflect and pivot. Gradually homing in on what will work and create value.
Improvising our way to innovation Which is pretty much the challenge in the world of improvisation in theatre or music. For a bunch of actors in an improvisation session the trick is to go with the flow, take whatever is thrown at you and not to respond with a ‘whaaaat?!!!’ when someone tosses you an impossible feed line.
It’s all about ‘yes, and…’ thinking — and to do that you have to have not only plenty of mental agility to find a way out but also the confidence in the others on stage with you to get you out of trouble. Psychological safety.
“ There’s really no failing in improv. You just go on to the next thing.”― Alan Alda
It’s the same with music; a jazz group might start with a recognisable tune which they walk through a couple of times just to settle down and give the listener something familiar to hold on to. Then it’s a case of one of the soloists taking off, stretching to find something new, something hidden inside the music, experimenting and prototyping on the hoof. The great architect (and jazz fan) Frank Gehry called it ‘ Liquid architecture….. — you improvise, you work together, you play off each other, you make something, they make something……’ But it only works if the soloist is confident that underneath are the rest of the band, watching and waiting, actively listening, keeping the safety net of structure in place.
We’d find this model in many creative situations. Think about a script conference amongst screenwriters, collectively exploring, pushing to find something new, some spurring direction to lift the story. Or in a brainstorming session within a design team, looking to find new ways around a problem. The need to feel safe enough to offer wild and often unproven suggestions, to throw wild ideas into the mix but not be afraid of having them hurled back at you…
Climates for creativity
In 2016 Charles Duhigg published an article in the New York Times describing an internal project at Google exploring what made their high performing innovation teams successful. The project was named Aristotle and they looked at data from 180 teams scattered throughout the country and areas of working. What made the biggest difference was not inspirational leadership or careful team selection but rather the underlying team culture — ‘the way we do things around here’ — which had emerged. And the most important of these norms was psychological safety; it was all about being heard by the team, speaking up and having a sensitivity towards one another’s feelings.
That research was not a one-off. A major programme of work in the UK also found that in successful teams, this group climate is key. Neil Anderson and Michael West talk about it as ‘active involvement in group interactions wherein the predominant interpersonal atmosphere is one of non-threatening trust and support….participative safety exists where all members of a work group feel able to propose new ideas and problem solutions in a non-judgemental climate’.
Amy Edmondson defines team psychological safety as ‘….a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking’, going on to describe it as ‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. This confidence stems from mutual respect and trust among team members’. It gives individuals a feeling of safety and make them more capable of changing while learning new behaviours and overcoming defensive routines.
And as William Kahn showed through his research, psychological safety gives individuals within a team a sense of ‘voice’ — the confidence to speak up and speak out without the risk of embarrassment, rejection or depreciation of oneself.
The feather-bed problem…
The reverse is also true — without psychological safety people feel anxious and threatened and these emotions can reduce cognitive and behavioural flexibility and responsiveness. These behaviours might emerge in different ways — for example ‘threat rigidity’ the ‘frightened rabbit’ effect), learning inhibitions (where the group plays safe and doesn’t explore) or saving face as a reaction to threat. But their effect is the same - to reduce or eliminate innovative behaviour.
That’s not to say that building a climate high in psychological safety is all about everyone being nice to each other, not challenging or rocking the boat. Far from it; research has consistently shown that low levels of conflict and challenge can also stifle innovation. Brainstorming is a powerful tool but if it is practised by getting everyone to only support and accept the ideas of others without a level of challenge or (constructive) criticism it is ineffective.
Instead what’s needed is a process which enables both exploration and also robust challenge. Something which film studios Pixar understand well; they have spent decades refining their internal creative processes to allow for regular daily challenge sessions which knock interesting ideas into healthy shape — and enable them to deliver a steady stream of innovative movies
A balancing act
It’s a balancing act. As Amy Edmondson points out, teams deal in two important currencies. The extent to which they are held accountable, — being expected to deliver and taking responsibility for what they deliver. And psychological safety, how far the team climate enables them to feel safe with stretching themselves and taking risks.
Put these two dimensions together and we can map a space within which innovative behaviours emerge. Or not. In zone 1 — the comfort zone — accountability is low (it doesn’t really matter what you do) and psychological safety is high. Zone 2 is ‘apathy’ corner where it doesn’t feel like it matters what you do and no-one cares much about you. Not a good place.
Zone 3 is where creative action ought to happen — but you’re feeling so stressed by the high levels of expectation and accountability that you can do nothing. The old ‘rabbit in the headlights’ problem where you’re paralysed by both the fear of taking risks and by the sense that you need to take them.
Zone 4 is where it all comes together, where there is that team climate of psychological safety to enable risk taking and high levels of innovation. The ‘Promised land’. But that leaves us the question of how we might get there? What can we do to build psychological safety?
Building psychological safety
There are several things we can try to help create the conditions for Zone 4 working; for example:
create a positive framework within which teams can work — setting expectations and boundaries, giving support and permission. William McKnight, famous CEO of 3M for many years captured it well, challenging his managers to encourage initiative but also recognising that ‘‘management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative’.
provide supportive leadership in terms of goal-setting. Amy Edmondson suggests framing the work as a learning problem not as an execution problem
invest in team-building — maybe not through flying through the air games but there are plenty of other ways of helping teams understand the importance of — and the experience of — psychological safety. Whether they are building towers or devising new machines to stop eggs breaking when they are hurled from windows they can have fun whilst also learning how to work together.
use the clock. One of the simplest tools is to ensure that people get equal amounts of ‘air time’, reducing the risk that some people’s ‘voices’ may not always be heard.
revise the ‘rules’ of brainstorming sessions to make sure that there is not only opportunity for ‘free-wheeling’, building on ideas, and supporting new directions but also making sure that judgment is postponed not eliminated. Good ideas emerge through a process of both challenge and support
practice ‘intelligent failure’. Post-project reviews offer an opportunity to look back to try to identify ways of improving for next time. Unfortunately many teams have a culture in which it is difficult to own up to mistakes and so important learning opportunities are lost; even worse, the same mistakes get repeated. So try to use a style of exploratory questioning which draws out the mistakes and failures in ways which are non-threatening and which allow for psychological safety.