Permission – the key to unlocking organisational innovation

Curious -cat (2)By Steve Chapman, Change & Creativity Consultant

How do you feel when you hear the word “Innovation?”  Compare that to how you feel when you hear the words “imagination”, “dreaming”, “creating” or “play?”  I suggest that the latter needs to be taken more seriously in our organisations if we are serious about developing the former. 


On paper, there is arguably no real difference between organisations that thrive at innovation and those who try very hard, but struggle.  They have similar structures, similar tools, processes and techniques.  However, if we get up close and immerse ourselves in their world, paying close attention to how people interact with each other, then we come to realise that the difference that makes the difference is not tools or techniques but culture.

Innovation is a social and psychological conundrum and it seems the dominant mechanistic and reductionist thinking in modern organisations distracts leaders from the fact that the underpinning beliefs, skills and competencies required to nurture an innovative culture are more artistic, amorphous, emergent and child-like.  Innovation is essentially applied creativity and creativity is applied imagination so, if we strip the whole process back to basics, we realise that what is needed is to nurture a culture where employees are willing and able to dream in front of each other and discover novelty through play and wanton experimentation.  It is only after we have began this rather difficult and ambiguous cultural change process that we can even think about training employees in new innovation tools and processes or buying a bulk load of bean bags and Foosball tables for the office! 

The key to nurturing a culture of creativity and innovation is to establish psychological and social ‘permission.’  As adults, many of us put our ability to dream, play, imagine and create in a deep freeze many years ago and the only way to defrost and tap back into these skills and capabilities is to widen the personal and cultural permission field, reclaiming these capabilities as legitimate and valuable ways of working.  The permission required here is multi-layered and is inherently difficult to initiate and maintain.  We must first start by giving ourselves permission to tap into and be proudly overt with our own creative abilities and build a deeper trust in our own spontaneous, improvised and instinctive ideas and insights.  

Once we have begun to give ourselves permission, we need to start the tricky task of giving permission to others in a way that is mutually supportive and symbiotic. Even organisations that state they want more creativity and innovation often end up stifling it when it begins to emerge in ways they did not anticipate or it challenges some of the deeply ingrained organisational norms.  It is therefore critically important to nurture cultural permission and create the psychological safety required to allow people to be proudly creative and imaginative in front of each other.  It only takes one dissenter to cause our timid and shy creative spirit to retreat back to the depths of our subconscious.

Practice exercises

There are a number of simple, but not easy, practices that we can adopt both individually and culturally in order to gradually give others and ourselves the social and psychological permission to imagine, create, dream, play and subsequently innovate in the workplace:


Practice 1:  
Dampening our fear of being perceived as mad, bad or wrong by others.

Practice 2:  Saying “yes” more and embracing the messiness, confusion and anxiety that may come from doing so. 

Practice 3:  Be more obvious as opposed to trying to be more clever and original and allowing ourselves to be altered by the obviousness of others.

Practice 4:  Fail happy and actively seek happy failures as a way of discovering and innovating.

Practice 5:  Quieten our logical, deductive and rational thought processes and become more aware of the creative clues and cues our instincts, senses and bodies give us on a perpetual basis.

Practice 6:  Make others look good by wildly supporting the development of their own creative spirit, even if it makes us lose face by doing so.


None of these practices can be undertaken hypothetically or theoretically.  The only way to start to widen the individual and cultural permission field is to design some small, modest experiments that may feel uncomfortable, but gently start to defrost and liberate the creative genius inside us all.

 

About the Author

Steve ChapmanSteve Chapman is a change and creativity consultant, speaker and writer who has worked with a wide range of individuals and organisations in order to help them re-discover their creative spirit. He is the author of “Can Scorpions Smoke?  Creative Adventures in the Corporate World” and writes a popular blog on the subject of change and creativity at www.stevechapman.org.

 

Hear Steve speak

If you've enjoyed this article and would like to hear more about shaping risk culture, Steve will be speaking speaking at the ABP's April London Local Event on Tuesday 15th April 2014, 6-8pm, University of Westminster.

During this interactive session, talk/mini participative experiment Steve will look to strip back the process of innovation beyond tools, techniques and structures to asks fundamental questions such as:

  • How do human beings create stuff together?  
  • What is it about the social and psychological processes that we perpetually engage in that constrain our ability to innovate?  
  • Do we need to focus less on developing traditional leadership capabilities such as strategy, problem solving and decision making and more on artistic capabilities such as creativity, imagination and improvisation?  
  • Does a culture of innovation come about less through learning new stuff and more through letting go of old stuff?

To book or find out more about this event click here.