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When It’s Great to Lack Confidence

In corporate innovation, everyone wants to be the hero — the person who comes up with the next big thing. We celebrate those who “win,” not those who shut things down. And why would someone want to work hard to shut something down when they have far more to lose than to gain from the endeavor?

A few years ago, I organized an EmbraerX team-building activity. We put 11, evenly-spaced strips of masking tape across the floor of a conference room. We labeled the first strip “0%” and the last “100%.” We then read outloud questions like, “How confident are you that we will be able to kill projects?” and “What percentage of your time do you feel ‘in the loop?’” After we read a question, each member of the team walked to the line labeled with their answer.

I organized the activity because I hoped to stimulate some good discussion about the challenges of innovating within a large organization. As you might expect, however, the team clustered quite often at the “high confidence” end of the room. Whenever I lacked confidence in something, I made a point of moving to the other end of the room. Not only did I want to be honest, I wanted to help others feel psychologically safe to join me.

It was really hard being the outlier. Each time several lines separated me from my colleagues, I felt like a bad team member. I felt like I was doing something wrong by not sharing the group’s view. I found myself defending my opinion by saying something like: “I know how this looks. Please don’t think I’m not 100% onboard with what we’re doing. I’ve just seen this happen a lot before and I feel like I’m seeing it now. I want us to be as successful as possible, so let’s just be sure to sanity-check things.”

I’ve seen these same feelings develop within each pilot participant who honestly lacks confidence in the path forward. After openly sharing their feelings, they immediately feel the need to apologize. If you step back for a minute and think about it, this is the disturbing reality of corporate innovation.

We need to change how we define a corporate innovation “win.” Winning shouldn’t be successfully getting a new product to market, and losing shouldn’t be shutting something down. We win when we help each initiative achieve the optimal outcome for the organization, whether that means commercialization or shutting it down quickly to invest in something else. And the intrapreneurs that take personal risks to help you achieve that optimal outcome? They’re your company’s real heroes.