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Leading Innovation

Lesson 9 of 15

Build Safe Environments

Shawn Hunter

Leading Innovation

Shawn Hunter

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Lesson Info

9. Build Safe Environments

Lesson Info

Build Safe Environments

We got to see in real time, and real experience an application what Cathy is doing in her group. In her organization, to apply these ideas, to create psychologically safe environments and I wanted to, just for a moment, we didn't talk about this in our interview together, but I wanna just give the antithesis of this which is what can go wrong. What can go wrong if you don't, you know sort of at your peril, create these kinds of psychologically safe environments. Well I recall, I don't know if any of you out there recall but that unseasonably cool morning of January of when space shuttle Challenger exploded high over Cape Canaveral, right. And on that fateful day we lost 7 astronauts, including you might recall the New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe right who was on board at that time and what made it even more poignant and more painful and visceral was at the time there were millions of people around the United States, North America, the world watching this momentous event...

on television. You know, I was, I watched this thing live, this horrible moment. The thing is what we know now is that unseasonably cold morning led to those fateful O-rings getting kinda brittle and the Rodger's Commission that testimony before Congress and the explanation of the O-rings, you might recall. But at the time, at the time they didn't know. They didn't know why. They were like just aghast, astonished, jaw drop. How could this happen? And so what they did, one of the many things they did. Was they reached out to the great Richard Feinman, you know the great astrophysicist and mathematician of the day, you know, this is the heir to Einstein. Just brilliant mathematical mind and they said: would you help, would you come, would you work with NASA, would you help us figure out what happened? So he did it a little bit reluctantly, it's a very big task but he said okay let's take this one conversation at a time and he went to the Jet Propulsion Labs and we went to NASA Ames and he went to Houston and he went to Kennedy and he went to Cape Canaveral and throughout all of his conversations he kept asking and probing to get closer and closer and closer to the answer of like what was going on? And then finally he was in a, with a group of engineers and he asked what is the official estimate anyway from NASA, what is your official statement on the odds of a catastrophic failure on launch? And the official pronouncement from you know headquarters, from the top brass was the odds are 1 in 100,000. Those are the odds. It's absolutely improbable, it's a twist of fate it'd never happen again for another 30 years. We could launch the shuttle every single day and it would never happen. And then he gathered the engineers, the engineers who are building the fuselage, putting in the fuel lines and the turbines and assembling the you know the vehicle itself and he asked them just anonymously, write down on a piece of paper. You know, you have deep knowledge of the uniqueness and the integrated pieces of this vehicle. What are the odds of catastrophic failure on liftoff. And in the room, the odds were one in 100. One in a hundred, the working engineers on the floor, that's what they guessed were the odds as Feinman later told people, the higher catastrophic failures one in come from the working engineers and the very low figures one in 100,000 from management. I mean that's the dichotomy of what can go wrong when we don't embrace these kinds of ideas that Cathy and I are talking about. About building safe empathetic, risk-driven environments that allow for vocal people to talk about what makes sense and what their work, in a great deal of honesty. It's a place of very safe environments. Now I want, just for example to talk about the work of Deloitte. The Deloitte Center for Leadership and Inclusion did an interesting study in which they talk about how, you know we all dress alike in many cases. You know teams do it of course, I mean if you watch the football or soccer or whatever it can bring solidarity, it can build unity it can bring focus together. But when we cover other aspects of who we are, like our socio-economic background, our health concerns that we might have, our ethnicity, or maybe we have cancer or somethin or diabetes and we're hiding that. When we start to hide things that are core to our identity we first think we'll be liked better. We'll fit in more but what really happens is over time we start to retract, we start to think to ourselves we don't belong here. Now a little bit of covering is common. Somebody from a big global you know serious organization asked me to speak and I said what should I wear and they said wear a suit and tie, okay. The next day I was speaking at a gaming company in Silicon Valley and I said what should I wear and they said oh uh, jeans and chucks and I was like what are chucks, duh? (chuckling) But the point being that, that kind of covering is very common and normal but when we do it for other reasons that hide core beliefs of our identity we suddenly feel like we don't belong. Nobody here gets me, I feel alone, I'm not, I'm disconnected with my kind of community. Amy Edmonson she puts it in these terms, she's from Harvard. Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. I'll tell you why this matters so much. I had a really wonderful interview couple years ago with a woman named Rona Cant. Her name is Rona Cant, I should call her Rona Can actually, she's quite remarkable. She was tired of the expectation that she raise her children she lives in North of London and just stay at home and she decided that she was going to embark on a dog-sled adventure over a perilous route through Norway that had never been done before, right. Hundreds and hundreds of miles out in the complete wilderness and she's going to do this with a friend and a guide and she has a, actually a storied history of sailing, long-distance sailing races, endurance races et cetera. But here's the story that she gets to which is, when you're in the middle of nowhere with your sled-dog team, they'd often camp near a body of water, a river, a lake et cetera. And as she would unpack and untether the dogs, she would first go and inspect each one for you know cuts, scrapes, bruising, you know how did they withstand the arduousness of the day. Her friend Cathy would begin setting up camp and they had a guide. The guide's name was Per Thore and Per Thore would take a huge auger, this gigantic ice auger and he would walk out on to the body of water and he would drill a hole through upwards, sometimes up to through a meter of ice so that they would have fresh water. And then he would build a fire and cut up reindeer meat, frozen reindeer meat and Rona Cant would carry liter after liter, after liter, after liter. Dozens of liters of water back to the fire to mix with the reindeer meat to make a stew all for the dogs, all for the dogs. And then finally only after that's done did she go out to the well one more time to get the water for the humans and only after the dogs were cared for did they take their first sip of water and have their own meal. The point of course is obvious that unless and this is an extreme example. Unless you're caring for the people around you, you're not going anywhere. I mean you're lost, you're lost in that what you can't accomplish something that is bigger than yourself. And sometimes I want to get into this, into this point of we try to, we go to the point of focusing on the individual to the point of almost surveillance, right. How are you doin, this is, in a workplace, many workplaces they want to know how long you talk on the phone, how much time you spent on this task, how much time you punch on this particular project. Amazon recently right, you know, in their warehouses they'll give, wear a bracelet that tells you to speed up. You know move these items more closely, it'll nudge you if you don't. And that kind of heightened surveillance makes you feel closer and closer to a robot and less and less human. A guy named Ethan Bernstein, he's from Harvard University and he went into some of these big organizations, manufacturing organizations and he watched the workers as the heightened level of scrutiny got higher and higher and higher and he discovered something interesting which is: it became almost clear immediately that operators were hiding their most innovative techniques from management so as not to get in trouble for doing things differently. Higher level of scrutiny, higher level of surveillance, leads to increased conformity. When you have increased conformity, you don't have innovation, you know, right. You don't have people taking chances. So just to sum up some of these key points to take with you, leaders of sales cultures they provide a deep sense of autonomy, they nurture a strong sense of progress, they create unique identities. I'll just pause on this for a second. The greatest cultures that you see define themselves in really idiosyncratic, unique ways. Think of the city of Austin, keep Austin weird, right. That's their motto. Organizations that have these sort of catch phrases that define uniquely who they are make themselves unique and bind the people in the organization closer and closer together. Aaron talked about it earlier, the importance of listening deeply. There's a guy named Dan Coyle, he has a brand new book out. I'm really excited for this book, it's called the culture code. And he call, he has an expression for listening deeply. He calls it trampoline listening. Trampoline listening is when you're giving energy back. So it's not uh huh, yeah, I got it, uh huh, it's that reminds me of, have you talked to this person. So it's this sense that you're getting reenergized. He calls it trampoline listening. Somebody gives a little bit into it and you give back as a leader. They give energy right, it's a binary thing. When someone leaves an interaction with you, do they leave with more or less energy? You know the people you can't stand, oh I've got a meeting with (groans) Joanne on Friday and I keep postponing it because every time I go, she's an emotional vampire and I can't (laughs) stand it. Or you're really excited to go interact with someone else cause they leave you provoked, they leave you affirmed. I had an interview with a guy named Victor Cho, he's the CEO of Evite, you use Evite, right. Invite people to your friend's backyard barbecue or something. So this is a very dynamic and changing, agile, nimble organization full of constant growth. It's about 90 or 100 people in the organization. He says, he looks for three things when he's hiring people. Do they have the skills to do the job. Can they put points on the board. You know points on the board is like, write lines of code, makes X many sales, you know, contribute to the output, the outcome. And three is kind of nebulous, hard to define characteristic he calls energy accretion, energy accretion and it's basically do you contribute to the mood state, to elevate those around you or not. And of those three characteristics: skills, points on the board, energy accretion he thinks this is the most important. You can learn the skills, it takes time to put points on the board, but do you contribute to the mood state and the vibe inside the organization to affirm those around you? The other thing of course that great leaders do of safe environments is they get out of the way. And that was my opening story about David Kelly and managing by getting out of the way in the sense of providing autonomy.

Class Description

For business leaders and managers, finding the key to creating a high-performing, innovative team can feel impossible. Most of the time, you’re too stressed, exhausted and depleted to do anything more than just get by. Or you might even secretly question your ability to ever be a great leader.

This course on leadership innovation provides you with a clear roadmap for creating an environment that inspires trust, cohesiveness, agility and innovation. You’ll learn the simple actions you can do every day to bring out the best in yourself and those around you.

Shawn Hunter, author of “Small Acts of Leadership: 12 Intentional Behaviors That Lead to Big Impact,” will show you how listening intently, acting with kindness, showing gratitude, embracing challenges and other actions can help you grow into a successful, impactful leader.

In this course, you’ll learn how to:

  • Build your self-confidence.
  • Create learning goals instead of performance goals.
  • Use social diversity and social risk to drive innovative thinking.
  • Get rid of fear among your team members.
  • Escape the trap of “arrested decay.”
  • Turn great ideas into concrete actions.
  • Develop your own leadership narrative.


Christian Röpke

Very inspiring class with great guest speakers. Shawn is a great storyteller and I really loved his story about the cycling trip! Overall the course is less "hands on" than I expected (if at all) but there was so much depth and fresh ideas that it was totally worth it!

Steven Seiller

These topics are profoundly impactful and are truly the magic of intentional change! I do wish this class is at least a half-day longer, because who doesn't need more magic to fuel your passions?!?

Manisha Dayal