Risk and failure are inherently uncomfortable for most people, but often risk is required in entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship and innovation. And far too frequently, people and companies take the conservative path in both their thinking and their actions.
Recently I had the opportunity to interview Jonah Sachs, a Fast Company writer and author of the new book Unsafe Thinking: How to be Nimble and Bold When You Need It Most to investigate this important question with a series of questions of my own. Without further ado, here is the transcript of that interview:
1. People like safety and security. What is inherently dangerous about them?
We tend to feel of safe when we think and act along well-worn paths. When the stakes are high, we feel most comfortable with patterns of behavior the have worked well for us in the past, that others have found success in and that feel predictable.
All of these strategies work well in a world that doesn’t change much. But that’s no longer the world in which we live. What worked well yesterday is likely to be obsolete tomorrow and so those strategies that feel safe are, in fact, dangerous because they often lead us to mediocrity or failure.
2. How can people embrace anxiety and break the safe thinking cycle?
I’ve learned through my research that most extremely bold innovators feel fear and anxiety just like the rest of us. Those emotions are a natural human response to challenge and, up to a point, they actually give us the motivation we need to act. The problem comes in when we believe that anxiety is a sign we’ve gone too far into the zone of risk, that we should see it as a warning signal to pull back. Top creative performers have taught themselves to see these uncomfortable emotions in the opposite way — as a signal that they’re moving toward their creative edge. They tell themselves and their teams that fear is fuel for creativity and that nothing new has ever been invented without making its creators feel this way. It’s not that we should always embrace the solutions that scare us, but if we never do, we can be sure we’re playing it too safe.
4. What can be good about something being difficult?
When researchers studied the habits of the world’s best musicians, they found one thing that separated them from those musicians who were a step below them. Of course, both groups practiced diligently. But the second-tier musicians practiced their craft generally while the top-tier ones picked away at the things they found hardest. This is called deliberate practice.
Difficult challenges, as long as they’re not so far beyond our skills that they simply exhaust us, provide the greatest opportunities for growth and learning. They also provide a deep sense of satisfaction when we overcome them and this, in turn, gives us the intrinsic motivation to continue pushing ourselves to be our best.
5. What is flow and how can people stay in it?
If you’ve ever been immersed in a particularly difficult challenge but found yourself totally zoned in, engaged and energized, you’ve experienced flow. Imagine a rock climber tackling a particularly hard route or a physicist untangling a vexing problem. In flow, we don’t get exhausted and we don’t look for the easy way out. This is where top performance springs from and it needn’t only happen in extreme situations.
Psychologists who study flow have found that it can be experienced on almost any task as long as two things are present: the level of challenge is just beyond your level of skill and you’re getting clear feedback on your progress. This is why, by the way, people will devote so much time to seemingly pointless video games — they’re designed to produce flow.
So when we or our teams are flagging at work, it may be time to re-evaluate and re-adjust that skills-to-challenge ratio and to make sure our feedback cycles are clear. We don’t often look at these factors, but these are key sources of motivation.
6. How can becoming an expert be a bad thing?
The relationship between expertise and creative performance is funny. When you set out in a new field, the more you know about it, the more you can innovate. But then you get to a certain point at which having more expertise, and especially believing yourself to be an expert, actually locks you in and blocks you from staying grounded in reality. It’s called entrenchment and it happens when your ego attaches to a certain set of ideas and practices. For every problem you encounter, you’ll find a reason to believe that your fixed ideas about it explain everything and that there’s little more for you to learn. This is why in one giant study of over 10,000 data points, experts tended to be worse than dart throwing monkeys at predicting the future. So it’s important to keep gaining knowledge about our fields but it’s just as important to spend time in other fields, where we’re just beginners, to keep us humble and to keep an explorer’s mindset alive.
7. What are the positives and negatives of intuition and how can we best harness it?
Intuition can be a source of genius because so much of what we perceive escapes our conscious attention and goes into our subconscious minds. That information isn’t lost though. It gets scanned for patterns and insights and when they’re found, those insight pop into our minds as a-ha’s. We just feel like we know and we get an emotional response that drives us forward in times of uncertainty. Top managers, investors and artists all report that intuition trumps data when making their most important decisions.
The problem is that what feels like intuition can just be bias. We meet someone and just “know” they’re competent or worth listening too. Are we getting that from deep pattern recognition or maybe just because they look like us, talk like us and think like us. Biased dressed up as intuition explains why Silicon Valley VCs invest 34 dollars in men for every dollar they invest in women — even though women tend to do better running startups.
The science on this can lead us forward. Researchers I spoke to explain that listening to intuition is key. Still it’s a trust-but-verify situation. We need to search our intuitions for bias, expose ourselves to people and situations that run counter to our biases and do small experiments to prove our intuitive insights before investing in them completely. Unfortunately, not enough leaders, especially at the top of their fields, ever think to question their guts.
8. Why is ‘embracing the absurd’ an important strategy for unsafe thinking?
In a crowded world, generating truly new ideas means exploring territory that others just assume isn’t worth paying attention to. I spoke with many innovators who came up with truly counterintuitive solutions that seemed absurd, even wacky until you understood the hidden logic. For example I spoke to two economists who upended the world of international aid by simply giving money away, $1000 at a time, no questions asked, to people living on two dollars a day. They quickly became one of the top rated charities in the world even though most thought they were crazy. They uncovered this idea by challenging an assumption that everyone just accepted as gospel: poor people need to be told what to do with money. Nearly every aid program is based on this assumption, but once you explore possibilities that expect its opposite, new territory opens up. There’s the mayor who fired all the city’s traffic cops and replaced them with street mimes, the football team that reduced head injuries by practicing without helmets and the reverend who brought violence down in his neighborhood by partnering with murderers. They all questioned the obvious and then generated highly logical, if seemingly absurd, breakthrough paths forward.
9. How does one break the rules in the right way, and why would someone create with the enemy?
There are two kinds of rules and both of them tend to put limits on creativity. The first is the rules that organizations impose on employees to increase predictability and compliance. In every company, these rules are constantly being bent and broken simply to allow people to get through the day and especially when they’re trying to produce something creative and new.
Those who have studied rule breaking have found that it’s a necessary part of a healthy culture and that if you’re going to do it, it’s far better to be what’s called an “articulated dissenter.” That means you don’t secretly break rules, but that you rebel in the open. You explain your reasons and make it clear why rule-breaking is being done not for personal gain but for the good of the enterprise. Articulated dissenters are judged to be more loyal and valuable even than those who don’t break rules at all.
The second type of rules are those that we impose on ourselves — our sense of morality. We need these rules of course to keep us on track. But when our moral codes cause us to exclude people who see the world differently than us be it religiously, politically or culturally, then we miss out on a huge opportunity to harness the power of cognitive diversity. It’s been shown that teams with very diverse life experiences tend to outperform even more talented teams who all think alike. You don’t have to get your mind changed by someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum, for example, for both of you to benefit from a powerful creative collaboration of enemies.
10. How can leaders make it safe to think in an unsafe way?
I found, perhaps ironically, that the organizations that best embrace unsafe thinking start by building a foundation of psychological safety. Only when people on your team feel secure, valued as human beings and rewarded not just for great results but for taking smart risks, will they be willing to venture out and challenge themselves and each other. Steve Kerr, the coach of the Golden State Warriors put it best when he told me that he creates two spaces for his players — the locker room and the arena. In the locker room, they tone down the pressure. They celebrate each other as people and focus on creating a protected environment. This allows them to step out into the arena and not be driven by a fear of failure. This is, in my mind, the key thing a leader can bring to push a team into the unsafe zone.
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Braden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, builds sustainable innovation cultures, and tools for creating successful change. He is the author of the five-star book Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire and the creator of a revolutionary new Change Planning Toolkit™. Follow him on Twitter (@innovate) and Linkedin.