It is almost impossible to overemphasize the effect of environment in innovation. Yes, some people have that special thing that makes them incredibly creative, but even the most talented team will fail if it is surrounded by risk aversion and fear to failure. The good news is that the opposite is also true, everybody has creative potential if the environment is favorable.
There are 3 main environmental states:
- Unfavorable environment: Only results matter. The motto is “if you fail, you’re fired”.
- Neutral environment: Failure is accepted. The motto is “it’s okay to make mistakes”.
- Favorable environment: Trial and error to maximize learning. The motto is “use all available opportunities to learn”
The conditions for innovation are adverse if results are the only important thing. Nobody will risk or try because there is no benefit is doing so. The safe option is doing anything it takes to get the expected results. This, of course, includes cheating, hiding information (especially problems) and the consequence are very slow learning cycles. No innovation is possible.
Moving from adverse to neutral conditions has a great positive effect: trying is not dangerous anymore. The system has stopped killing people’s initiative and the idea of “doing nothing is better than trying because at least you don’t fail” is no longer valid. However, innovation is not just about trying anything without much thinking, it needs structure. It’s about creating value through learning. Sometimes creating thinking structures is confused with killing ideas, but they are very different things. Thinking structures force you to think, help you design useful tests and speed up learning cycles. Killing ideas is just treating people as if they could not think by themselves: no listening, knowledge is not shared, testing is forbidden.
Moving from neutral to favorable conditions means promoting structured learning: evaluate risks, understand effort/benefit balance, design experiments that maximize learning, validate ideas with customers, keep the end in mind. Yes, all that means getting results in the most effective way.
Results are the consequence of innovation, not its enemy.