Innovation: 5 do’s and don’ts to get people outside the comfort zone

A former CIO shares what works – and what doesn’t – when you’re motivating a team to innovate
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One of the trickiest parts of leading a large team is motivating them to innovate. As the one in the organization most often looked to for innovation, you must push teams to try new things. But just because you decide on a bold new path, this does not instantaneously translate into the hearts and minds of the team – or even your senior leaders.

Pushing anyone outside of their comfort zone can be a challenge. After all, it can be tough for any of us to change our ways.

Over the years, in my experience as a CIO leading large global technology teams, I’ve had the opportunity to watch how others (and I myself) adapt to change. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t and hopefully learned from my mistakes. 

[ Read also: Outsiders won’t fix your innovation problem: A CIO’s take. ]

While innovation can fuel a company’s growth, it can be intimidating for those of us who may have reservations about what it means. When you want your team to adopt a fresh way of thinking, I have found consistently that your own conviction is never quite enough.

Taking more risk than usual is difficult for you – and it’s even more challenging to convince your team. Why?

  • We’re wired to stay in our comfort zones, to do things the way we’ve always done them.
  • Research shows that humans resist change because they fear not being able to adapt to a new way of doing things – or because they may lose something they value. It’s more about the emotional side of the equation than about the practical implementation of a new process.
  • Just telling your team to embrace innovation doesn’t mean they will. Some will tend to love new ideas, whereas others just see all the risks.

How to get comfortable with being uncomfortable

In addition to the difficulties in motivating your team, innovation can be stressful for you, too. Building stakeholder trust is tough, but there’s a risk that your initiative won’t work out. We all know how fast trust can be shattered with one bad idea or a poorly executed project.

Of course, as the leader, it’s your job to help bridge the gap between those who are quick to adopt new ways of thinking and those who may be reluctant to do so. I have often found that those most reluctant, once convinced, are the biggest and most successful drivers of change. It just takes more effort to bring them into the journey.

So how do you help your team get comfortable with being uncomfortable?

Here are some of the approaches I’ve used – successfully and unsuccessfully – to implement ideas outside of my team’s (and my own) comfort zone:

What has worked

1. Choose the right time to talk about the changes or initiative you propose

Be selective about when you open a dialogue about change. For example, starting a discussion about disruption in a larger meeting may not work as well as it would at a time when there are fewer people involved and the conversation may flow more easily. By using care about when you announce your idea, you may find it’s more readily received, meaning you gather advocates more quickly.

2. Convince a respected and experienced member of your wider leadership team to run the new initiative

Putting one of your most experienced people in charge of leading what others may see as a crazy or risky idea brings instant credibility and draws other team members in.

3. Advertise the initiative by announcing new roles on your team

Consider creating new positions on your team to lead the effort. Give them titles that make it clear that it’s that person’s job to bring everyone on board onto the new path. This helps to allay the fear that this is a “flash in the pan” and that by jumping in with two feet, you may find yourself without a job in a few months.

What has been less successful

4. Filling the space with only the most enthusiastic for the idea (typically new graduates)

My experience has been it’s generally easier to fill these roles with younger professionals: It’s new. And they have little to lose and lots to gain by working on the most innovative topics. However, to give credibility to the initiative and increase the likelihood of success, you’ll need a mix of skills and experience.

I’ve also found it is very easy to fall in love with your own ideas, so having a few people around who are experienced enough to tell you what won’t work is always useful. Of course, this also helps illustrate to everyone the importance of adopting the new approach. It’s for everyone: It appeals to all levels of experience.

5. Leaving responsibility for the initiative with only one person in my leadership team

By not making it part of the full leadership teams’ success goals, in fact, I set it up for failure. Technology rarely works in isolation, so all team members need to be motivated to drive the change, even if for their specific area it is just an added burden of work.

The positive here (beyond increasing the chances of success) is that you can also spread out the recognition for success.

Model change for the team

Clearly, you and your team are only one part of the picture. Convincing stakeholders, your CEO, your peers, and your board are also challenges that I will try to address in future articles.

These techniques should help you lead the changes you want to see in your team. There will always be struggles when you try to innovate, but don’t let that keep you from trying new things.

As Steve Jobs stated, “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”

[ Are you leading toward a more innovative culture? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Jim Whitehurst. ]

Martin Henley is senior vice president of Globality’s technology services sector group. Henley and his team collaborate with customers to innovate through artificial Intelligence and immediately unlock cost savings by revolutionizing their service procurement process to deliver better results across their technology-related service spend. He previously wa