Want to innovate? Learn how to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable

May, 2022

Change makes people insecure, but organisations can also use it to drive innovation. Create the right context for your employees and magic will naturally happen, writes innovation expert Simone van Neerven.

The pace of change has never been as fast as it is today. And yet it is likely to never again be this slow. And we all know that change brings uncertainty, a feeling that makes us uncomfortable and that we want to avoid as much as possible.

But here is the thing. Change is the only constant, and one thing is certain: certainty is an illusion. So the key is to get comfortable with that uncomfortable feeling.

Certainty above all

Again and again, scientific research shows that people naturally seek for security and certainty. We prefer to keep things as they are, even if we know that changing now means we’ll be better off in the future.

Organisations struggle with this daily. They know that they have to continuously keep up with all changes, but all too often the ‘we have always done it this way’ attitude reigns. Even sticking your head above the ground is still very difficult in many organisations.

Fear is stronger than curiosity

From an early age, we have been taught that making mistakes is bad. At school, we strive for error-free tests that yield the highest grades and the most compliments. But that also means that we no longer dare to take risks and that we are careful not to go off the beaten track.

The problem is that for most people, fear trumps curiosity and excitement. When people don’t feel free to try new things, their work becomes more repetitive and boring. There are fewer and fewer new ideas and soon teams find themselves in a downward spiral, with unhappy people who are no longer productive.

To innovate is to feel uncomfortable

As the American writer and management consultant Margaret J. Wheatley once said, “The things we fear most in organizations – fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances – are the primary sources of creativity and innovation.”

Innovating means being open to other perspectives, even if they go against your reference frame. It means daring to change your mind. Daring to admit that you don’t know and that you don’t know what the future will bring.

Innovation is experimenting: trying new things, making mistakes, learning, and daring to stop initiatives when they don’t work. It is daring to help someone else without necessarily benefiting yourself. And it is also daring to come up with solutions that initially seem way too crazy (and therefore will probably generate a lot of resistance).

When people don’t feel free and safe, they suppress the urge to try new things. They will also stop sharing their concerns and honest opinion; both are essential for innovation.

Practice makes perfect

Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker who in 1974 dared to stretch a tightrope between the two Twin Towers in New York and walked eight times between the two towers in just 45 minutes, was a strong believer in continuously challenging yourself and overcoming your fears. By training a lot, he learned to get over the uncomfortable feeling.

If you hesitate, your fear grows. When you dare, your courage grows

Another more recent example, also coincidentally in New York, is from Lee Kim, who started creating and wearing a silly hat every day in 2017. Wearing the hat on the street and the subway made her extremely uncomfortable. People stared at her and sometimes asked her questions. That led to such fun and interesting conversations that she started to feel better. It broke her daily routine.

The initial plan was to stop after a year. But she overcame the uncomfortable feeling, and very much enjoyed the many beautiful moments. To this day she wears a different homemade silly hat every day.

Curiosity is contagious

The good news is that curiosity is contagious. When a leader is curious, she or he is open to other perspectives and actively seeks them out. By asking open questions to the team, there is room for wonder and the team members feel encouraged to come up with new, sometimes weird, or even radical ideas and solutions.

Make it super fun

There are simple ways to create a good, open, and safe foundation in a team. For example, Vueling Airlines’ innovation team in Barcelona weekly spun a digital ‘wheel of fortune’ in their team meeting. When the wheel stopped on a picture of a team member, she or he had to create a simple prototype within a week. This should be shown to the others in the following team meeting.

When they started the team members were a bit anxious, but soon everyone got used to it. Not only was it fun, but the bond between the team members strengthened as they started to help each other. Trust in the team increased dramatically. On top of all, fifty new ideas came to life.

Magic

People are naturally curious. Create the right context and magic will happen. Organisations that understand this are more comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. They no longer become uncomfortable with the constant changes, but instead, they have found ways to benefit from it.

This article has been translated from its original version, which was originally published in Dutch on MT/SPROUT on May 10, 2022.

Wanna read more ? Then check out this column: “Oh no! We have a rebel in our team”

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