'Dangerous' Ideas Are The Key To Innovation


You must be willing to look at things from a different perspective in order to find new ideas for approaching challenges and moving things forward in an organization. As a change leadership speaker, it’s my goal to help people do just this. My colleague, PJ Chan from Kotter International has written a great blog post that shows you how you can foster the creation of new ideas within your team.

(This content was previously published by Kotter International Engagement on Forbes.com.)

Leadership Lesson: ‘Dangerous’ Ideas Are

The Key To Innovation

My colleague PJ Chan has worked with many of Kotter International’s most successful clients. Here she shares a perspective that helps the leaders she works with to challenge their ways of thinking, and reveal new possibilities to which they’d previously been unable to see.

Today there was a fresh new Hemispheres Magazine on my early morning United Airlines flight. Let me preface: I am not an employee, paid representative, or linked in any other way with the airline magazine. However, reading this magazine is my guilty pleasure. I look forward to a fresh new copy (with an empty crossword puzzle) on my first flight of each month. The headline “The Upside of Unspeakable Ideas – Courting Controversy at the Sydney Opera House” recently caught my eye.

Apparently there is an annual festival of “Dangerous Ideas.” Without repeating all three paragraphs, I’ll summarize – they do mean dangerous! One of the talks will cover, “A Killer Can Be A Good Neighbor.” The goal of the event is to discuss ideas outside the mainstream, getting people out of their comfort zones and challenged with new ways of thinking. You may respond with “Wow, how cool!” or you could react with a “That’s the craziest idea I’ve ever heard in my life!” Your reaction reveals where your thinking lies on the spectrum of open-ness to new ideas.

While I am a great proponent of safety, I believe that in both life and business we need to think, share, and discuss more dangerous ideas. Talk about a way to encourage innovation! We all know innovation is still a huge buzzword in business, yet we dance around taking the time, effort, energy, and risks in order to achieve it in our organizations.

We are afraid to bring together people from all areas of the business and give them the freedom and flexibility to share and discuss the “dangerous” ideas in a safe environment. What are we afraid will happen? Is it about loss of control? Fear of the unknown? Concern we won’t look like we have all the answers? Where does this fear of risk come from and – more importantly – how can we overcome it?

Part of our inherent fear, as we all know, is from the fight or flight syndrome used to help protect ourselves from harm. It is tied to a deeply hard-coded survival instinct. This desire for status quo and stability has its place. However, it can also be the enemy of innovation and, on some levels, even to survival.

Recently, my husband and I went to the Austin Freedom Fest where we attended the sneak preview of the new movie “The Book Thief,” based on the book by Markus Zusak. It’s an amazing book and a tremendously well-done movie about a young girl in Germany during Hitler’s reign. It embodies the two extremes of what an idea can become: ideas can cause real damage and destruction or they can spur growth and inspire humanity. In many ways this book and movie show why we are afraid to allow ourselves and others to think about “dangerous” ideas.

In all reality, it is more about the implied danger and less about the actual danger of the idea. Just ask yourself what kind of reaction the word “dangerous” elicited in you. Ideas really have no inherent danger or safety in and of themselves. The only tangible impact comes from what we do with the ideas. Perhaps removing such loaded labels is one way to court innovation and promote idea exchange.

On the contrary, what amazing, wondrous ideas could come if we were to begin an idea session with the most extreme idea – the business equivalent of “A killer can be a good neighbor.” Consider a simple idea like “What if we moved all retail sales to the Internet?” You can see how an idea like this could inspire fear, anger, and frustration in a company with hundreds of stores and thousands of salespeople. But failure to explore or even consider ideas like this has taken a big toll on many businesses – consider JCPenney, Best Buy, and OfficeMax/Office Depot.

As leaders who want to foster innovation in your organizations ask yourself one question: What will I do today to encourage the sharing of “dangerous” ideas, “unspeakable” ideas … or any ideas at all?