In a life-or-death rescue situation, you’d think that the rescuers wouldn’t need to be reminded of the objective. But that’s exactly how 33 Chilean miners were saved in 2010 after being trapped 2,300 feet underground for more than two months. Andre Sougarret, the engineer who headed the effort, led an international team of geologists, drillers, NASA engineers, and others who collaborated on the literally and figuratively groundbreaking effort
And a big part of Sougarret’s success, says Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, comes down to something very simple: “He continually reminded people of their shared purpose: Why they’re here, why this matters—even though it was patently obvious,” she says. “But people in intense work environments like that get frustrated, get into conflict, get discouraged. So he was continually pumping that purpose back in.
The same is true in more prosaic, yet still demanding, work environments: People tend to drift away from the original goal. There may be competing visions of what the objective actually is, or leaders who fail to communicate it clearly. Or, as time goes on, team members may get distracted by “shiny things,” like a really cool feature that’s actually not valuable to the end user. “It’s so easy to lose focus, especially when we’re being asked to come up with crazy ideas all the time,” says Jennifer Sukis, design principal for AI practices and leadership at IBM. That’s especially true if a team has challenging interpersonal dynamics that inhibit their ability to talk openly.
Sukis and Edmondson shared their expertise during a panel sponsored by Post-it Brand entitled “Master Class: Igniting Your Team’s Potential” at Fast Company‘s fourth annual Innovation Festival in October.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY
There’s more, of course, to meeting a goal than simply restating it frequently—and it certainly helps to have said goals clearly identified on a Post-it Super Sticky Dry Erase Surface to help keep your team on track. When Sukis leads design workshops for the teams working on artificial intelligence at IBM, part of her responsibility, she says, also involves giving them permission to simply be themselves. This “psychological safety,” as Edmondson describes it, is critical for innovation.
“Psychological safety is an environment where people really do feel they can bring their full selves to the work,” Edmondson says. “They can speak up with wild ideas that might not work, they can ask questions, they can express their concerns. That’s the kind of climate where innovation flourishes.”
Without discipline, of course, the innovation can go off the rails—addressing problems that aren’t high priorities, or endlessly going down unrelated rabbit holes. That’s where focus on the goal comes in—and where effective teams distinguish themselves. “As a leader, it’s important to give people room to throw out wild ideas,” Sukis says. “But then you’ve also got to kick them back into balance when they’ve gone too far out, and remind them why we’re here.”
That combination of creativity and discipline creates an environment in which innovation can flourish and teams can collaborate to do their best work.
This article was created with and commissioned by Post-it Brand.