Harvard's Chris Colbert Visits the Dig Deeper Podcast
By Frank Connolly
Director of Communications and Research, MindEdge Learning
When it comes to fostering creativity and innovation in the workplace, sophisticated management strategies abound. But perhaps the most important thing, according to Harvard innovation authority Chris Colbert, is making sure that workers feel safe enough to take real risks.
Colbert, managing director of the Harvard Innovation Labs and a "serial innovator" who has helped build several companies over the course of his business career, discusses workplace innovation in the latest installment of Dig Deeper, MindEdge Learning's podcast on critical thinking and creativity in the digital age. To listen to the Dig Deeper podcast, click here.
Innovation, he says, is linked to — but different from — the idea of human creativity. He defines innovation as the process of creating "measurable improvement," while creativity is "the task of creating something from nothing." What the two share, he argues, is "the capacity to see what might be." And he believes firmly that innovation is a skill that can be taught and actively encouraged.
Citing Google's research on best practices in human resources, Colbert says the idea of "psychological safety" is one of the keys to encouraging innovative thinking. "If you create a safe environment for people, they are more willing to take risk — in every form," he says. "They're more willing to take risk in ideating, they're more willing to take risk in putting their ideas on the table, they're more willing to take risk in challenging the ideas of somebody else in the room. They have no fear in their capacity to open up and imagine what might be."
The Harvard I-Labs, he says, strive to create a psychologically safe environment by fostering a sense of community among the students and alumni who use the facility.
"When I first got here two years ago there was a kitchen and I thought, that's silly — why do we have a kitchen? Why do we give them food?" he recalls. "It seemed frivolous. But what I've come to realize is, the hearth is a really important facet of creating an innovative community and an innovative environment."
Equally important for companies that want to encourage innovative thinking, he says, is the example set by corporate leaders. "The only way to create an innovative organization is through innovative leadership," he insists. "If a leader wants an organization to be innovative, to take more risks, to be more open-minded, to be more creative, he or she must exhibit those behaviors."
Too many corporate leaders, he says, only pay lip-service to the idea of innovation. "We see this time and time again in corporate America, particularly the Fortune 1000, he says. "[People] who are stuck on their sort of legacy views, and holding onto what has been, and at the same time out of the corner of their mouth telling the organization that they must be more open to change, they must be more risk-amenable. But they themselves as leaders are not. And I would bet you dollars to doughnuts that those organizations will not survive, long-term."
The young people toiling in the Innovation Labs today will be among the corporate leaders of tomorrow. And Colbert believes that the most important lesson they can learn is that they must never stop learning. "The first lesson is, evolve or else," he says."Your capacity to survive, to thrive, to maintain whatever quality of life you aspire to, is directly correlated with your capacity to grow" And so the thing I would say to everybody at any age: if you aren't learning — it's trite but it's true — if you aren't learning, you are vulnerable. You are fundamentally vulnerable in your job, in your life."
Looking to the future, Colbert — though "a worrier by nature" — says the values and determination of today's young people give him plenty of reasons to be hopeful. He notes that of the 170 "venture teams" working on projects at the I-Labs, the greatest number are working on social enterprise projects aimed at having a positive impact on society. "The ideas that we see coming through here in the social enterprise space are scalable, because they're taking full advantage of the latest technologies and business sensibilities," he says. "It's not just about people caring — it's about people having the knowledge and the capacity to care, in ways that have real impact."
The bottom line? "I've probably never been more optimistic about the future," Colbert says.
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