Radically human transformation

How to foster a more innovative organization


American philosopher and academic Allan Bloom said, “I bless the society that tolerates and supports an eternal childhood for some, a childhood whose playfulness can in turn be a blessing to society.” But, for many organizations, that playfulness has gone missing. Over the last 10 years, the concept of innovation has been primarily limited to technology, artificial intelligence and automation — or to debates about how to engage in a more innovative process.

Meanwhile, the most innovative companies have figured out what it takes for people to think boldly and harness new ideas and how to organize themselves to support environments that foster creativity. While they may have all of the formal trappings that foster an environment that delivers good work, such as frameworks and processes, they are also radically human. They offer their people the trust and safety they need to feel comfortable saying what they think and making mistakes. They promote a culture where people find themselves in a state of play, where chaos and beautiful accidents coincide in the development of new ideas that enable them to delight their customers and do work better and faster.

A panel of Korn Ferry experts recently discussed how organizations can support two distinctly human characteristics — innovation and curiosity — as part of our Radically Human Transformation Discovery Series. The session was led by Esther Colwill, who helps organizations find and develop current and future leaders. Joining her were Martin Misciagna, who helps architect the future of organizations; Khoi Tu, who enables what’s next right now and is obsessed with leaders, teams and culture; and Alida al-Saadi, who addresses disruption and the evolution of work.

How organizations experience creative tensions during innovation

When we think about the human operating system, we tend to focus on three things: the model, mindset, and methods in an organization. All three interact dynamically and impact culture, which is how a company does things. The most innovative companies use the inherent tensions between aspects of implementation and imagination to foster a culture that supports creative energy.

Based on our research, using 4 billion organizational data points and 73 million executive assessments, we’ve determined that the most innovative leaders and organizations have decoded how to make the most of four creative tensions:

  1. Tolerance for failure but not for incompetence.
  2. Willingness to experiment but highly disciplined.
  3. Psychological safety with extraordinary candor.
  4. Collaboration with individual accountability.

These organizations don’t view the tensions as binary, and they don’t try to resolve them one way or another. Rather, they have discovered how to draw energy from these tensions, transforming them from destructive to constructive. This ability is a hallmark of a radically human organization.

Let’s take a closer look at each one.

Tolerance for failure but not for incompetence

When chaos and confusion reign, there’s a simple success strategy that many organizations don’t consider: failure. When you’re solving novel business problems and you don’t have a lot of information to work with, you need to try new and different things. You must experiment, fail fast, recognize successes and build on what works.

One key, according to Misciagna, is for organizations to redefine “failure.” Without failure, innovation can’t happen. When failure isn’t welcomed, every initiative becomes “do or die,” and you continue to spend money and churn and limit objectives so you won’t fail.

With this redefinition, organizations must also come up with a new definition of “competence.” Combine the traditional definition of competence and apply it through an organization with traditional hierarchies, roles, responsibilities, accountabilities and expertise, and it makes for a really effective barrier to innovation. “That’s because innovation doesn’t live in the world of right or wrong; it lives in the world of gray,” Misciagna commented.

That’s why we need to redefine competence in a manner that allows individuals to use their expertise and experience differently. Here are four ways Misciagna suggested that organizations can get started:

  1. Be intellectually curious. Ask “why” even if you know the answer.
  2. Think and act in a way that reflects the interest of the entire organization and your stakeholders. Find ways to selflessly add value, even when it may have some negative consequences for you or your team.
  3. Use your individual expertise to explore the gray and the unknown. Provide guardrails to manage risk and keep the organization out of trouble, but otherwise use your expertise to enable creativity and innovation.
  4. Be willing to influence without using authority. Pull together expertise from across the organization and outside the organization to solve novel business problems, without regard for hierarchy or boundaries.

Teams that follow these steps will challenge and learn from each other, engage in creativity and build on each other’s ideas, enabling them to perform better as a whole.

Willingness to experiment but highly disciplined

Outside of research and development functions, where agile methodologies have long been in place and helped embed innovation as a process for product development, the concept of innovation has often been misunderstood. Some think innovation is a source of fun ideas but has no follow through. As a result, innovation is often addressed outside the normal course of business, in offsites or internal idea competitions. Taking time out of the day-to-day is a good practice for generating fresh ideas, but it isn’t enough if you want to build a more innovative organization, according to Colwill.

Organizations need to think about innovation differently. Colwill explained, “Innovation is not group session thinking about out-of-the-box ideas. It’s the practical implementation of those ideas that result in new or changed value for your organization and your customers.” The need for disciplined implementation of innovation comes in the form of constraints and choices, neither of which are the enemy of innovation. When organizations attempt to innovate without boundaries, people are overwhelmed with options and struggle to coordinate what they’re doing with innovation activity.

The challenge is how to channel creative energy into a productive business environment. Colwill suggests that organizations can take a more disciplined approach to innovation by applying a few simple rules at key points. Simple rules add just enough structure to help organizations avoid the stifling bureaucracy of too many rules and prevent the chaos that comes with no rules at all.

To illustrate her point, Colwill pointed to Corning, which set out to double the number of new businesses it launched each decade. Its team identified the company’s major breakthrough products and studied the commonalities across these advances to articulate a set of simple rules for evaluating new innovations. The simple rules were as follows: address new markets with more than $500 million in potential revenue, leverage the company’s expertise in material science, represent critical components in a complex system and be protected from competition by patents. With these rules, Corning found the discipline necessary to foster rather than stifle innovation.

Psychological safety with extraordinary candor

A willingness to experiment begins with trusting relationships and supportive environments. And the words we say and how we say them will drive outcomes, according to al-Saadi. When thinking about the juxtaposition between safety and candor and how to bring playfulness and creativity into workplace, al-Saadi asked “whether the language we use is the puzzle piece we lost under the sofa.”

If we define psychological safety as our emotional and physical responses in a given context, the environment we intentionally create determines how people feel and behave. If you think about the language used around “candor” in everyday work environments, our words can shift the perception from safety to discomfort to high risk. So, in considering the words to use to describe this tension, al-Saadi chose “extraordinary candor” rather than “brutal honesty.” “Brutal honesty” conjures images of performance reviews that highlight a person’s shortcomings in a state of self-protection. But “extraordinary candor” adds the element of intention to curiosity to support the psychological safety of interactions. The distinction shows how words become critical to creating the right context to work together and innovate over time.

To set the right context for play, organizations must deliberately establish a language of innovation. al-Saadi offered an example that shows how the language of innovation entered mainstream conversation. In the late 1990s, global design company IDEO popularized the idea of innovation when it showed its process for developing a new shopping cart concept on Nightline. Afterward, companies began asking about human-centered design, and workplaces embraced open spaces instead of cubicles.

Some say it can take 10 years for an idea to catch on and become a movement. IDEO is a great example: it was talking about innovation, physical space and creativity 25 years ago. Right before the pandemic, we saw many companies moving to an inclusive workplace design, human-centered design and innovation as a business imperative.

Collaboration with individual accountability

Although there’s no “I” in team, the truth of teamwork and collaboration is that there has to be individuality at the heart of the collective, Tu explained. He feels a creative tension between “wanting to be special and recognized for my individuality and at the same time having a deep yearning to belong to a community that’s bigger than I am.”

Many organizations fall into a trap and choose one side or the other of the tension. Either they focus only on incentivizing and rewarding the individual, or they design the organization only for the collective. However, the most innovative organizations create conditions that allow people to be their best selves while recognizing that “we” can matter more than “me.” They realize that innovation resides at the intersection of difference and togetherness.

Take, for example, the collaboration between Pfizer and BioNTech to generate their COVID-19 vaccine. Until this year, vaccines have taken years and even decades to develop. But the duo at the helm of BioNTech achieved a breakthrough in less than a year. According to Tu, they had a “brilliant marriage of explore and exploit. One was more focused on the beauty of math and biology, and the other was much more interested in the scalable application of bioinformatics and the market for mRNA.” They attained the highest level of collaboration by enabling each individual to be accountable, being fully clear on their individual commitments and recognizing their roles and strengths combined with a deep trust and respect for what the other brings. In short, they married individual accountability and collaboration.

Cultures that enable and celebrate being special and belonging together will deliver the greatest creativity. The organizations with cultures that enable us to unleash our individual potential and that assemble and harness the collective genius of all of us are the ones that will be more innovative — and will survive and thrive.

Finding the balance between the tensions to foster innovation

Innovation is not simple, but it isn’t alchemy either. The most innovative companies are continually figuring out what it takes for people to invent and create and how to operationalize and organize the right balance between these inevitable creative tensions.

In our experience, even the best innovators need fine-tuning of the levers that shape the behaviors of their teams and their organizational structure. To learn more about these levers, watch the replay of this discovery session. Then, please get in touch to discuss how you can unleash the infinite ingenuity and potential of the people in your organization.