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  • Trish North

The Psychology of Innovation and Change

Updated: Dec 17, 2019


Innovation is hard, there’s no denying it. When I shared my thoughts about the Vitality of Innovation, I began my own quest for understanding why it is so hard. My quest took me back to the basic principles of what I learned in school.

Psychology 101

Abraham Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs is a cornerstone of Psychology 101 classes. It theorizes that our actions are motivated in order to achieve certain needs.

Introduced in 1943, the concept suggests that people are motivated to fulfill basic needs before moving on to other, more advanced needs. As a quick refresher, Maslow’s hierarchy is most often displayed as a pyramid. The lowest levels of the pyramid are made up of the most basic needs, while the most complex needs are at the top of the pyramid.

Once we attain our physiological needs that are vital to our survival, we move up to the second level and the requirements start to become a bit more complex. People want control and order in their lives to feel safe and things such as employment, health and personal security contribute towards the goal of freedom from fear.

Now let’s pause on our psychology lesson and dig in deeper to these safety needs and how they translate into the business world. Bear with me, I’m getting to the good part.

How psychology bleeds into the business world

We’ve all been taught that good performance in school and in most work environments means not making mistakes. This is a big problem, because failure is an unavoidable part of innovation and experimentation. Furthermore, failure is downright uncomfortable.

Maslow aptly stated that an individual engages in learning only “to the extent he is not crippled by fear and to the extent he feels safe enough to dare.”

So what does this mean? In order to innovate we need to change our attitude towards mistakes and failure and obtain freedom from fear. We need to overcome our fear of failure and expand our innovative thinking skill set.

“I have not failed 10,000 times.

I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

-Thomas Edison

Every great innovator has a string of failures behind them. They had to fail, otherwise they would not have discovered the successes.

In order to thrive, businesses need to implement the dual mentality of simultaneously tolerating mistakes while maintaining operational excellence. That's not easy. Simple shifts in naming conventions is an easy way to start. How about renaming mistakes or failures as learning opportunities? I know many start-up organizations that take this approach and it not only removes the sting conversationally but gives “failures” an heir of acceptableness.

Changing Our Culture

Many companies want to establish a culture of innovation, one that will encourage employees to take risks that lead to breakthrough products, but they struggle to do so. In most workplaces people have a fear of looking bad, or fear of losing their job if they make mistakes.

Part of this is what world-renowned Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls the “fixed mindset”, where people believe that basic qualities like intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. The alternative is what Dweck calls the Growth Mindset, a view that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work, and that brains and talent are just the starting point.

Leaders must pave the way to a Growth Mindset by ensuring that their teams’ Maslovian Safety Needs are met. There are always some areas of the business where failure cannot be tolerated, but it is experimentation that leads to growth. In more ways than one.

Our culture is the net effect of our shared behaviors, so adopting innovative behaviors must come first. We change our culture by behaving in ways that are more innovative.

What exactly are those innovative behaviors? I’ll share more on this subject in a future post.


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