Amy Edmundson of Harvard Business School introduced the concept of psychological safety about twenty years ago. Psychological safety is a shared belief that a team is safe to take interpersonal risks. Individuals are free and willing to speak openly and honestly about problems without fear of retribution. Teamwork and organizational effectiveness demonstrate the need for psychological safety in groups, especially when learning and growth are valued.
Of course, innovation requires learning and growth. Developing new products and services necessitates risk-taking and teams must have open and honest interpersonal communication to invent new offerings. While trust and motivation are important for productive innovation teams, they are usually one-to-one behaviors. Psychological safety is more focused on understanding and framing group norms that lead to efficient team results. There are four components to psychological safety that improve innovation success.
Accountability is extremely important for innovation success and is a key element for organizational development. In a psychologically safe team, the group members trust both the intellectual and emotional freedom of one another. Intellectual trust means that the team members are competent in their skills and can accomplish work tasks with little need for education or training. Emotional trust means the team members share a vision and work together without cynicism or skepticism about fellow team members.
Thus, accountability within a team means that I trust you to do your tasks (both intellectually and emotionally) and that you will work to support the team. If you don’t do your work, the rest of the team will hold you accountable for failing to meet goals. Psychologically safe teams use accountability to help one another accomplish difficult tasks and will teach one another how to do so if learning is needed.
As an example, a new product development (NPD) team faced a very challenging technical development step. Herman was in charge of bringing the model of the technology to the next monthly team meeting. When he failed to make progress on the model, the rest of the NPD team held Herman accountable but offered help in the psychologically safe environment. With advice from LouAnn, Herman was able to bring a completed model to the next monthly team meeting. As an organization, this team learned that accountability is important in innovation and that shared learning supports the long-term vision.
Herman and LouAnn also learned that collaboration is important for successful innovation. Teams that collaborate are a hallmark of psychologically safe organizations. When knowledge is shared and individuals are free to admit they need to close learning gaps, the organization – as a whole – benefits. Collaboration is not the same as coordination. Instead, a LouAnn demonstrated, collaboration is a combination of experience, knowledge, and helping.
Today, collaboration is often mistaken for lots of talking. And, sure, in NPD we do need to talk to our customers, and we need to also talk to stakeholders and other team members. Yet, talking is only half the equation of collaboration. Listening is the other half.
Collaboration requires active listening to truly understand the challenges, many of which are not clearly articulated. In Herman’s case, he could not create a working model for the new product because he lacked testing data. When Herman and LouAnn collaborated, she actively listened as he described why he was late with delivering a working model. LouAnn offered her experience and connections with other people at the company, allowing Herman to acquire the test data he needed.
In collaborating, team members, like Herman and LouAnn, find psychological safety because there is no punishment for not knowing an answer in advance. LouAnn shared her experience but didn’t interfere to directly solve Herman’s problem with the model. As a result of the collaborative effort, both Herman and LouAnn gained knowledge and experience that they can apply to all future work assignments.
It goes without saying the creativity is a necessary ingredient for innovation. Successful new product development practitioners identify creative solutions to customer problems and use creativity in brainstorming throughout the product development life cycle. Yet many people in many different firms hesitate to take creative risks. Such organizations have not established a psychologically safe culture for innovation.
While some believe that creative environments are free-for-alls with people playing ping pong and pursing whatever idea captures their attention, a psychologically safe and innovative culture is one in which creative risk-taking is encouraged but managed. All innovations are undertaken as part of a disciplined business strategy, so creativity is not defined as just throwing paint at a canvas and calling it art. Creativity is nurtured and focused to attain strategic innovation goals. Moreover, in a psychologically safe team, creative ideas that don’t work out are not punished as long as the concept was designed to address a given problem.
Consider an interaction between Karl and Wilma, both working on a new and improved revision of a small motor product for yard service. Wilma decided to test remote starting of the motor, thinking that it would help users get a head start on their yard chores. She believed a creative solution to customers’ complaints of “yard work takes too much time” required a technical solution.
Karl, as Wilma’s manager, congratulated Wilma on her creative thinking but need to rein in her solution. Product safety standards necessitate a person be in control of the machine when the motor starts. Without damaging their relationship and while still encouraging creativity, Karl and Wilma agreed to document the technical development but not include this particular remote starting function for this product. Karl built psychological safety by allowing team members to pursue creative solutions yet defined creativity within the boundaries of the innovation strategy.
As exemplified by Karl’s open acceptance of creative testing, leaders play a key role in generating and sustaining a psychologically safe culture for innovation. Many organizations today have driven toward flatter management hierarchies which, thankfully, reduces bureaucracy and enhances communication. However, because there are less forms, policies, and approvals in flat organizational structures, innovation leaders need to increase their attention to strategic innovation. Within these rims, leaders need to create environments that allow for risk-taking without reprisal but ensure that business goals are achieved.
In a democratic organizational structure, leaders increase their communication with team members to drive strategic focus. Successful innovation leaders are aware of all aspects of the NPD project and support focused creativity and expectations. Leaders demonstrate vulnerability to encourage open and honest communication among team members. A leader’s ability to balance accountability and creativity is reflected by hard business measures as the innovation goes to market.
Four Elements of Psychological Safety for Innovation Teams
Innovation is always a balancing act between taking unwarranted risks and generating novel solutions. Creating a culture of psychological safety encourages NPD teams to be more innovative and will immediately impact the bottom line.
The four key components to generate and sustain psychological safety for innovation include accountability, collaboration, creativity, and leadership. Successful innovators hold team members mutually accountable for actions and deliverables. Team members collaborate to solve problems by bringing forward their own ideas and experiences, knowing that in a psychologically safe culture, they will not fear retribution is they suggest or test creative concepts that don’t work. Finally, leaders balance risk and discipline to encourage novel product solutions that align with strategic objectives.
One way for leaders to become comfortable with managing innovation teams with psychological safety is to understand and implement all phases of a new product development system as in the New Product Development Professional (NPDP) certification. Also, if you want to really take a giant step change in your new product development and professional growth as an innovation leader, join the Innovation Master Mind (IMM) today. I also offer individual coaching that holds you personally accountable to meet strategic objectives while accelerating your product development cycles. And, if you want a preview of the Situational Team Leadership training, please contact me at email@example.com or 281-280-8717. I love helping individuals, teams, and organizations achieve their highest strategic innovation goals!
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