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I had a CEO talk to me about the frustration he was having with generating innovative thinking from his leadership team and in general from within the company. He challenged his teams to come forward with new growth strategies yet he felt that the ideas presented to him were predicable and “safe.”  I then asked him “do you make it safe for your teams to be innovative?” I received a classic CEO look in return and he said, “of course, I’m asking them to think big and disruptive!” I then said, “your words may sound safe to you, but have you actually created a safe environment to think and act innovative and disruptive?”

In corporations, like in life, actions speak louder than words.

Most corporate environments are designed to reward repeatable and consistent results while minimizing risk to achieve them. This is a necessary aspect of a business but it is important to recognize that this environment could also squeeze out innovative and long-term thinking. Innovative thinking is about challenging the status quo, which some will view as a risk to the performance of the company. A company is a collection of people, which brings human vulnerabilities to the equation. Most people do not want to take the “entrepreneurial risk” that is needed to develop and champion innovation within a company or to be able to support disruptive thinking. Some employees will make a trade-off decision between pushing for innovation (which, they may perceive, brings some risk to their career or compensation) or simply staying with the status quo (which always will feel safe…if you let it.)

Corporations need to create safe zones to innovate.

While it is important to develop the Innovator’s DNA within a company, it is necessary to create a safe environment that will thrive within. Here are some actions to create a “safe zone” to stimulate innovate thinking and strategies within a company:

Take a cross-functional approach. Innovation efforts need to include not just dedicated “innovation departments” but also other functions. Having legal, finance and other functions involved will help make sure that innovation activities are not isolated. The involvement of a cross-section of functions will secure their early engagement, which ultimately will help the output be a success.

Create space. Create routines or environments that give the time and space for teams to disconnect from the normal routine, be creative and feel safe. This could take form in the way of a retreat, dedicated time in the corporate innovation lab (if one exists) or other methods. The key is to unplug from the daily routines that may artificially have teams be short-term risk averse when teams should be focused on long-term disruption. The committed time will also send a message to teams that this work matters and is not a spare time project.

Make it a routine. Corporations have repeatable results through discipline and routine and there is no reason that creating space should not be integrated into the operating fabric of the company. It may not be as frequent but having a systemic approach to creating a safe space to think disruptively will not only send a signal that this is how the company works but helps get results from these activities.

Have clear accountability and transparency. Creating a clear expectation of an output and making it visible across the leadership team is important to get results and also in creating a safe innovative environment. “What gets measured gets done” are common words in corporations that also links to compensation and career advancement. This linkage is what creates safety for many which is why it is important that success is measured, rewarded and communicated. How to measure success and reward risk is vital to encourage people in the organization to take risk and challenge the status quo.

Companies are designed to minimize risk and reward routine and people crave that safety. Creating a safe zone and environment to be disruptive not only will accelerate a company’s innovation effort but will also help continue to evolve the culture of the organization.

Originally published at On The Wire, a blog from Highwire Group helping leaders and their companies embrace transformative thinking and innovate fearlessly.

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Arguably one of the most knowledgeable intrapreneurs around, Alex Gonzalez has helped lead transformative innovation and build growth processes for the likes of GE and Equifax, among many others. Today he’s the founder and managing director at Creative Growth Ventures, where he splits his time advising, training and consulting with executives, corporate innovation teams and high-growth startups.