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What Innovation Feels Like (Part 1: Fear)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

by Melissa Tullio RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / creativegov

There was a comment on my last post by Martin (See: A Government that Learns By Design), and while I was nodding my head at the whole thing, these two bits rang very true:
We need to move away from a culture of CYA and learn to speak frankly of the barriers and risks associated with change.
and
Let's all start speaking real-talk.
So here’s my real-talk. I'd like to explore a series of barriers I’ve encountered being a public servant for more than seven years, and suggest some ways to overcome them.

A primary barrier to innovation is fear

I recently read something by Seth Godin, and the opening sentence is probably what permeated my subconscious and has driven me to write this blog post:
The opposite of creativity is fear.
Inside the public service, fear takes the shape of deeply entrenched risk aversion, and defaulting to a (very broken) status quo. Fear leads to bad decision making, ignoring opportunities for growth/change, and oppressing diverse talent and voices in the organization.

I’ve seen fear in action. I’ve seen leaders being chosen based on a system that favours the familiar – “safe1” choices who think and act the exact same way as the hiring managers. I’ve seen managers “check in” with staff 50 times a day, to prevent any straying from the official plan or processes (effectively removing any possibility for creative – or even critical – thinking). I’ve seen peers mindlessly do work they’re asked to do and complain in the staff room how little sense it makes, without speaking up about it.

Each of us, at every level, is responsible for the culture of fear we’ve created (and we’re all responsible for fixing it, collectively).

What innovation feels like: a principled, shared fight

My solution to remedy the culture of fear has always been to challenge the system, to be hyper aware of illogical requests and/or politics-driven (big “P” or little) decisions, and to push back against them whenever and wherever I have the energy to put up a fight.

A seemingly benign (but, really, insidious) way to do this is to simply speak up and ask "why." I find that this simple habit seems to disarm people, and challenge them to think critically. It also creates space for others to speak up – if one person speaks up, it gives permission for others to do it, too.

More actions to fight fear

Here are pro tips that have worked for me when starting a principled fight against things in the system that make no sense.
  • Pick your battles wisely. Choose to challenge nonsensical things that will have the most meaningful impact, for the most amount of people (called leverage points in systems thinking).
  • Partner with at least one ally. Walk away if you’re alone in the battle. If you’re the only one who sees a problem, either there isn’t a problem; the amount of effort outweighs the potential impact (i.e., the leverage point is weak); or you’re surrounded by people who are willfully or unwillfully blind, and/or unwilling to be the change we need to be to fix this culture of fear2.
  • Try infiltrating official networks/communities. There are usually some safe spaces to experiment and learn from others. If there aren’t any, grab your ally and start one yourselves. (All it takes is two people).
I recognize that all these suggestions take energy and some dedication (and maybe a little bit of nerve), and an ability to look at the long game. I think I've resolved that I'm a lifer, and if I don't try to live the kinds of values I want to see our organization demonstrate (at least, some day), I should pack up and move to Hawaii and spend my energy saving whales instead (hold on... why am I not doing this instead?)

Is there a culture of fear where you work? What shape does it take? If you could imagine how the culture should be instead, what might that look like?

Next barrier to attack: lack of trust.

1. Not safe at all. The status quo, and hiring people who are doing things the way they have always been done, is a major part of what is keeping everything (including the workplace culture) in an unsurprisingly bad state.
2. In which case, I’d say don’t just walk but run away from your job entirely, if you’re able to.