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Becoming comfortable with disruption: why trying new things is easier said than done 

These articles have been written by the first cohort of the Practice Makes Unperfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices. 

By Joelle Swann, Digital Delivery Lead, Jacobs Engineering Group Inc

As 2020 draws to a close, untold disruption is left in its wake across the economy, our culture, and our physical and mental health.

But why, when disruption is considered so negative in everyday life (no one wants to see their train journey or favourite Netflix series disrupted) are we so desperate to see it in business?

A chap called Clayton M. Christensen coined the term ‘Disruptive Innovation’ back in 1995, describing “an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market-leading firms, products, and alliances.” It has been labelled the most influential business idea of the early 21st century.

To innovate we need to try new things. Sounds both simple and obvious, right? But it’s easier said than done. To take risks you need to feel psychologically safe, comfortable enough to contribute your best thinking and to experiment, without fear of humiliation. How often do we have this luxury at work? Due to a legacy culture of expecting success on the first attempt, people often default to the least risky option.

In a global economy gripped by Covid-19, for businesses across the world it has never been more critical to innovate in order to survive. Psychological safety paves the way for innovation. Leaders face important choices around cultivating environments that encourage colleagues to take brave steps into unknown territory. 

Amy Edmundson of Harvard Business School said that, “while trust and motivation are important for productive innovation teams, they are usually one-to-one behaviours.”  She explains that psychological safety is focused on understanding and framing group norms, across accountability, creativity, collaboration and leadership. Here are a few bold, real-life examples that have embodied these values, resulting in innovation success stories!

Case study 1 – Ford Motor Company

Ford Motor Company recognises that great ideas can come from anybody – they have turned thousands of their employees into innovators through ingenious initiatives such as companywide innovation challenges. Individuals, no matter their role, are encouraged to invent something. A panel of engineers narrows ideas down to those worthy of patent protection that are commercially viable.

Finalists are supported by Ford to develop a prototype and business case before pitching their idea, with winners of the challenge being provided with the resource to carry their idea forward. This has proved to be a phenomenal success: in the space of just one year 5,500 employees put forth ideas, with 2,200 of those being first time inventors. Patents include a flying drone that acts as a look out for your self-driving car, and a transportable robotic device that can move people and objects short distances where cars aren’t accessible.

The takeaway: create a culture that encourages a Silicon Valley mindset; leverage diverse teams to generate creative ideas and champion people to bring them to fruition. This will pay long-term dividends.

Case study 2 – Vodafone

Shake it up with Xtreme T-Shaping (Vodafone’s term for cross-skilling). Vodafone’s Digital Marketing team discovered that they were 65% more productive when they were not doing their own jobs, but someone else’s. The team was divided into smaller teams of 2-3 people, each of different disciplines. The rules were that individuals could not work on their own job but had to teach another person in their small team to do it; so, you had data scientists teaching graphic designers data science and vice versa. Teams had to collaborate to deliver a tangible end product for customers, and the results were astonishing: a fast-moving backlog delivering 65% more productivity. The development of empathy and understanding for challenges faced in other roles, the learning of new skills, and the creation of focus were accredited for the phenomenal, unexpected success.

The takeaway: build small, nimble teams and cross-skill. The focus, empathy and new perspectives that this will bring will prove invaluable.

Case study 3 – US Navy

Karim Harbott, Agile Coach, often references the leadership style of the industrial revolution, where managerial decision making elicits effort from workers. This continues to cast a shadow over the management of teams today. To move on from 18th century managerial structures we must de-centralise decision making.

A potent example of this was in the US Navy when Captain David Marquet took command of a nuclear submarine different to one that he was trained for. He recognised that only having one point of command was not only limiting the efficiency of operations but was also dangerous. He vowed never to give another order (with the exception of the final, executive order to launch a weapon, keeping moral and ethical responsibility).

Instead, in a very unmilitary fashion, he empowered his submariners to think for themselves whilst following his general intent. The shift in psychological ownership led to a significant increase in proactiveness, creativity and initiative. This brought the authority to where the information was, gave control and created leaders, resulting in the submarine crew receiving the highest grade ever awarded by the Navy inspection team.

The takeaway: simply put, give people autonomy. As Steve Jobs once said, ‘It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do, we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.’

If you want innovation of the disruptive kind, first disrupt your own norms, structures and processes before you even think about disrupting an industry. Build a healthy culture where employees feel psychologically safe. Do it like your company depends on it – because it does, in a post pandemic world.

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