The paradoxes of innovation

Innovative cultures have a high degree of tolerance for risk and failure. They are marked out by their non-hierarchical structure, psychological safety, collaboration, and experimentation. And this all adds up to successful innovation. Right? Maybe not so quick.

Gary Pisano from Harvard Business School* surveyed hundreds of managers at seminars across the globe. The common perception of innovative cultures is that they are ‘pretty fun’, as Pisano puts it. A culture good for innovation is beneficial to the company’s bottom line and valued by employees. None of the managers said they didn’t want to work for an innovative company. But Pisano believes that innovative cultures are largely misunderstood. Just like creativity, innovation can be messy.

So what is missing in terms of how we perceive them? And why are they tricky to create and sustain?

“The easy-to-like behaviors that get so much attention are only one side of the coin. They must be counterbalanced by some tougher and frankly less fun behaviors.” – Pisano

Necessary counterbalances

Innovative cultures are paradoxical. Counterbalances to the ‘fun’ aspects make innovation possible.

When there is a high degree of uncertainty, we need to lean in and explore. What we dont know becomes what we know through ‘test and fail’, we learn as we go. Failure in this way offers us the crucial insights to move forward. But failure could also be the result of poor planning or communication, a lack of transparency, or insufficient prioritsation. High tolerance for failure offers learning, but must be backed up by high competence. The two seem like opposites but go hand in hand – that’s the paradox.

Four paradoxes for effectively innovating

• Tolerance of failure must be backed up with intolerance of incompetence

• Psychological safety requires radical candour

• Willingness to experiment needs to be underpinned by rigorous discipline

• Effective collaboration is liberated by individual accountability

The climate dimension

In addition to these paradoxes, the climate must ‘work’. This takes experimentation, focus, and discipline. So what could we look at? Here are a few ideas about climate characteristics.

• Anti-fragile: Energetic, optimistic, curious, and determined, leans into chaos or messiness, core belief that things can be different and better. Leaning into the anti-fragile aspects are where the greatest opportunities often sit.

• Purposeful: imaginative, visionary, anchored – appreciative of the fact that we need ‘just-in-time’ and ‘just-in-case’ management for the longer-term benefit of business, people, planet.

• Dynamic: brings analysis and action together, is decisive, transparent, can move on when needed.

• High in social capital: respects and nurtures a diversity of human contribution, activates and liberates it.

We can capture people data to support our discovery work.  Measurement tools such as the novel GC Index can map innovation potential through identifying energy for impact against a cycle of change – at individual, team, and system levels. We also have next gen tools to map the climate for innovation – and the core dimensions that facilitate exploration. With this data we can lead our innovation efforts from ideation through incubation into exit and scale.

The shining fifth paradox – the leadership dimension

The last counterbalance is the strong leadership required.

Tensions will and should arise through differences of view, uncertainty and changing circumstances. As tech entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan notes: ‘For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, and debate.’ Our job is to diffuse what seems like relationship conflict and provoke healthy task conflict so that we can move from zero to one. Leaders who can ventilate and hold tensions pave the way for ideas and people to flourish.


If you want to innovate – get disciplined. Recruit the best talent you can and set transformative goals. Experiment with ideas that may ultimately fail, but never accept mediocre tech or management skills, sloppy thinking, poor work habits or low levels of commitment.

Managing the paradoxes of innovation with decisiveness, tact and transparency has a critical impact on our innovation efforts.

* The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures, Gary Pisano, Professor Harvard Business School. Harvard Business Review, Jan – Feb 2019.

If you want to liberate a diversity of impact for effective business growth, call us. We have a range of novel methods and tools that offer what we need in remote and hybrid working conditions – immersive, fun, and impactful time together.

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