Innovation’s Fear Factor

The fear of failure are reasons why our best work never sees the light of day ; gaming can make us braver.

It seems absurd to imagine an organization devoting months of staff time, attention, and money to a project that has been executed perfectly only to have it never launch. Welcome to the world of innovation.

While many business scholars cite the high failure rate for innovation initiatives and new products, far less is mentioned about the biggest ‘failure’ of them all: failure to launch and learn.

This is the fear factor and its tied to a few specific things.

Fear of Commitment

McKinsey looked at the issue of innovation implementation and found one of the significant factors underpinning success (or failure) was the level of leadership commitment. They found:

Innovation, at its heart, is a resource-allocation problem; it is not just about creativity and generating ideas.

The commitment is not just to supporting development of the initiative or product, but it’s realization in practice. Once launched, we are accountable for what comes next. We need to support the product or service like its a living thing and that requires commitment. It means acknowledging that things will change as a result of that — in ways that may not be predictable. This leads to the next fear….

Fear of the Uncertain

The unknown has been identified by psychologists as the most fundamental of fears. Uncertainty, its close cousin, might be second. Uncertainty brings the blend of knowns and unknowns together and can lead people to generate an illusion of control when we prioritize what’s known over what is not.

I’ve seen this in practice too many times to count. We get senior leaders who choose to do nothing – despite all the effort to create something — because its believed to be safer to stand pat then to act (it’s not). It’s easier to embrace a more certain status quo than an uncertain future by trying to change the present situation.

Fear of Learning

Think of a time your worldview changed dramatically in an instant. Maybe it was one of those things that you ‘can’t unsee’ or hear. It’s the moment you choose to do something different because the present situation is no longer the same.

This is the consequence of learning. When you learn that your program that you’ve been delivering for years is no longer achieving results, what do you do? Evaluation in the service of innovation is about learning: it tells us what’s working, under what conditions, and what’s going on. The question comes down to this: do you really want to learn?

The question’s worthy of consideration. Because sometimes, as Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men famously said: “You can’t the truth

Gaming Fear

There’s no single vector for overcoming these fears. Small acts of bravery, done consistently is what can generate a culture of confidence, rather than fear — even in the presence of great uncertainty and change.

One of the strategies for doing this is to build up habits that nurture this bravery through gaming. As game designer Jane McGonigal has found, the art of gaming problems taps into our creative selves and allows us to challenge energy, focus, and commitment to small tasks in the service of much larger goals. It’s easier to be brave in a game than it is in real life, yet by subtle adoption of a game persona and development of goals, strategies, and markers of success that mimic games, we can transform fear into opportunity.

Even something as simple as keeping score can help. The Innovation Implementation Index that we developed at Cense is a simple, six-item index that can help you keep score of the things you try, the failures you have, and the amount of things that actually get done. There is no absolute metric for success with this index — it’s something that you can keep to yourself as an organization (akin to McGonigal’s ‘secret identity’ concept) — but it can be a way to fuse your action, strategy, and evaluation together to help you increase your bravery and your innovation execution.

Innovation is not a game, but we can use these principles to make change a reality, by design. Reach out if you’re interested to learn more and ‘level up’

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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