Building Environments Where Innovation Thrives: Dispatch from SCP 2020

Entrepreneurial: it’s been a bit of a buzzword of late. The influence of startup culture – picture youthful innovators with big ideas who dress like teenagers don’t take no for an answer – has permeated even the most staid organizations. Everyone wants the agility (and potentially massive financial returns) of an entrepreneurial organization. But, while we’re all familiar with the myths and stereotypes of entrepreneurship, we may not know much about what kind of culture and behavior we need to cultivate in order to actually reap the rewards of a more entrepreneurial approach.

Given this conundrum, the theme of this year’s Society for Consulting Psychology conferenceRisk and Reward: Developing Ecosystems for Entrepreneurs – seemed particularly timely. Five members of the MRG team just returned from this year’s event in Philadelphia, where we were immersed in entrepreneurship from a psychological perspective. Alongside several hundred of our fellow attendees, we got to explore the question: what conditions are required for an entrepreneurial approach to thrive?

There was ample compelling content on this topic, but one presentation that had us all nodding along enthusiastically was from Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School who pioneered the concept of psychological safety. In her keynote, she shared several dramatic examples in which psychological safety in the workplace was a matter of life and death – both for better (when the Chilean miners were rescued thanks to an idea from someone with no experience in rescuing miners) and for worse (when astronauts were killed in the Columbia explosion after a mid-level employee felt discouraged from speaking up about an issue he saw that, if repaired, might have averted disaster).

While creating psychological safety in the workplace is not always so high stakes, it can have a major impact on any organization. Edmondson underlined the point that anyone’s voice could be mission-critical, so it’s essential to create conditions where every individual feels that they mattered and that their voice is respected and valued.

What does psychological safety look like in practice? She was careful to point out what it doesn’t look like: being nice; a “license to whine;” or freedom from conflict. In fact, a psychologically safe environment will have ample conflict. When an entire team is in lock-step agreement with no debate or dissent, it’s a sign of danger. It means that the people who do want to dissent don’t feel like it’s safe to do so.

You can tell that you are in a psychologically safe environment when people are speaking up, and when as an organization, you talk about problems and failures just as much as successes. To create such an environment, Edmondson identified three critical steps:

  • Frame the work: make it clear that contributions are welcome and that failure and missteps are not only welcome, but celebrated as an essential part of the process
  • Invite engagement: be aware of your phrasing. Consider the different connotations of “Who has a different perspective?” (assumes dissent is present) vs. “Does anyone have a different perspective?” (assumes dissent is the exception).
  • Respond productively: take dissent seriously. It doesn’t mean that every dissenting idea or difference of opinion must derail the plan, but the way leaders respond to dissent lays the groundwork for new dissenters – and new ideas – to come forward.

It was an inspiring keynote, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

We were proud to contribute to the discourse as well, presenting our own new research at the SCP conference for the fourth consecutive year. The SCP audience is engaged, curious, and challenging, and preparing presentations for them pushes us to raise the bar. This year, Maria Brown dug into our database to discover what makes entrepreneurial leaders so unique, and she and Tricia Naddaff presented a few different perspectives on the entrepreneur profile. If you weren’t able to attend SCP (or you were there but you missed the session), you can catch an abbreviated version on March 24, when Maria presents the webinar Leading the Charge: What sets entrepreneurial leaders apart and how we can help them succeed. (To register for the webinar, click here.)

We’re also proud to support the SCP conference as sponsors. Each year, I’m amazed at how hard the organization’s leaders work – and how many volunteers they engage – to put on a fantastic, engaging event. Looking forward to seeing you in 2020 in Manhattan Beach!

Did you miss our dispatches from previous years’ SCP conferences? Catch up on our 2018 and 2019 dispatches.

Up next, members of the MRG team will be at the 2020 Maine HR Convention and ATD 2020.

If you’ll be at any of these events, please let us know. We’d like to make sure we say hello – just forgive us if we’re a little hoarse!

About the author

Lucy is the Head of Marketing at MRG. She's a passionate people person who talks with her hands even when she's on the phone. She will not rest until everyone on earth has taken their IDI.

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