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Opinion | The safety net that fuels innovative thinking and problem solving at work

Psychological safety allows teams to build on each other’s ideas and challenge them

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

We were sitting on campus, around a wobbly table, reminiscing about the years gone by at our 25th college reunion. Cocktails, dinner and dancing had ended. It was late but we didn’t want the evening to end. Most people around the table were now senior leaders, but at that moment, none of it mattered. We were friends, hanging out together the way we had all those years ago, and we could say what was on our minds without filters.

Someone asked: “How much of your time and mind space goes into gauging and managing the political winds compared to your actual role?"




“I spend most of my time reading the tea leaves."

“Actually, my job is the easiest part of what I do. It is all the other stuff that takes so much time."

Consider for a moment what this might mean. Here was a group of very talented, smart people, each of whom had so much to give the world. Yet what a large amount of time and energy was going in stuff that neither added value to them nor to the world.

This was not different from my own experience of organizations. As we rose through the ranks, our success came from being able to advance our ideas in the organization. This needed skills—reading the organization, reading people, and finding ways to advance our ideas. This took time and mind space.

In recent years, organizations have accepted this reality and have even begun to teach us how. We’re assigned to attend workshops to learn how to become better influencers and managers and build better networks.

Yet, what if this itself becomes “the job"? Is this really the best use of everyone’s time and talent? Aren’t there far better ways for organizations to solve problems?


As organizations everywhere prepare themselves for a faster changing world, the canvas on which innovation plays out has expanded greatly. Once the preserve of R&D, today’s big innovations include new ideas for customer experience and business models. Innovations at this scale of complexity are unlikely to emerge through leaders working alone. Truly novel ideas are hard for solo leaders to think of and even harder to advance. In a time that needs innovation and agility, this mechanism guarantees mediocrity and a glacial speed.

A quick study of how complex problems are being solved today will point you to some interesting facts. The average team size for the Nobel Prize in science is a 4.04, going by a study by Northwestern University. In fact, modern science has become the “teamiest of team sports"—as an article in US magazine Stat puts it—with many critical discoveries being signed by teams of thousands. The team has, in fact, become the unit of innovation.

Closer to the world of business, this is evident in two places. The first is in the intense ideation and creativity of many early stage startups. One team I interviewed a few years ago spoke of how they used Google Sprint for a complete pivot in their offerings. It is this kind of creativity within founding teams that has the capacity to build completely novel ideas.

The second is within organizations that routinely build innovation. In 2012, Google studied 180 of its own teams to uncover what made them effective. Google, of course, did what it does best: analyse data, and spot patterns.

None of the traditional considerations around teams such as personality types, extent of socialization, or how often the team met, mattered as much as one single factor—psychological safety within the team.

In her book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety In The Workplace For Learning, Innovation, And Growth, Harvard professor Amy Edmondson writes that psychological safety is the extent to which people feel comfortable speaking their mind. It allows teams to build on each other’s ideas and challenge them.

It is easy to understand why. All of us have been part of meetings where we felt we were walking on egg shells, and we know how difficult it is for anything genuinely innovative to emerge there. Besides psychological safety, a strong passion for the end objective and diversity of perspectives helped.

So perhaps it is now time for senior leadership teams to explore different ways of creating and building a new future. Ways that allow for collaborative problem solving and truly make the best use of everyone’s talent and time. Ways that will ensure buy-in right at the start.

And frankly, allow each senior leader to have so much more fun.

Shalini Lal is an organizational development and innovation consultant with more than 20 years of experience.

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