Group, fear, distance, and innovations.

In a recent interview, Google’s CEO, Larry Page, said “Most businesses fail because they miss the future.”

I can’t agree more.

However, I don’t think it is a failure to envision the future.  The problem, I think, is that often times there are invisible inertia which prevent companies from doing radically new things.  Incremental improvements are praised and encouraged.  But forward-leaping initiatives just don’t happen as often.

Why is that?

To examine it further, we have to look at how a group of people makes decisions.  In social science, the ideas of conformity, social norm, and groupthink have long been studied.  These powerful forces come into play during the decision making process, whether we know it or not.  Essentially, these forces boil down to fear.

Fear of being wrong.  Fear of sounding stupid.  Fear of push-backs.  Fear of rocking the boat.  Fear of sticking our neck out.

On the other hand, the distanced relationship between an individual and the decision outcome is usually not apparent.  It is hard for anyone to relate a group decision to their personal well-being.  After all, who thinks that agreeing with colleagues at work will have any significant impact on their lives?

When these two powerful forces: fear we all share and distanced responsibility, are combined, it only makes sense for any sane person not to risk themselves pushing for something different.  The inertia for change creates a barrier for leaping innovations.  Lack of true innovation ultimately brings demise to a business.

How do we fix that?

To address the fear problem, we need to create a safe environment where people feel comfortable voicing out their thoughts.  This means not passing judgement too early when an idea is still brewing.  This means encouraging people to speak up whenever they have concerns.  This means separating the individuals from the issues itself. (“It is not about you or me, it’s about the issue at hand”).

For the distance problem, communication and transparency is the key.  By communicating the impact of a decision and be totally transparent about its outcome – no matter success or failure, people can better relate the decision to its outcome.  By nature, no one wants their company to fail.  Once we realize the significance we have on the decisions we help making, we feel responsible for its success and failure.

By conquering our fear to conform and feeling responsible for the decisions outcome, we can bring about real innovations to the world – innovations that shape the future we all live in.

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”   – Mark Zuckerberg

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