Thinkers: Don’t Kill Your Chances to Make It in the Digital Economy

Fawn Fitter

Deborah_Perry_Piscione,_Secrets_of_Silicon_ValleyWhen Deborah Perry Piscione wanted to build her network, she helped launch Alley to the Valley, an online community for some of America’s most powerful women in business, venture capital, politics, and the media. When she wanted something fresh to read, she cofounded BettyConfidential, an online magazine chosen by as one of the top 100 websites for women. She and her colleagues at Silicon-Valley-based Enterprise Development Group help companies boost their ability to innovate. And her first book, Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Everyone Else Can Learn from the Innovation Capital of the World, was a New York Times bestseller in 2013.

In her follow-up book, The Risk Factor: Why Every Organization Needs Big Bets, Bold Characters and the Occasional Spectacular Failure, Piscione argues that in the digital economy, the greatest risk is inaction. We talked to her about why managers usually end up killing employees’ big ideas and how they can stop.

Business leaders say they want employees to innovate,but employees often complain that their ideas go nowhere. What are the leaders doing wrong?

Deborah Perry Piscione: Good ideas can come from anyone in the company at any time, but managers often aren’t in the habit of listening for them. They aren’t open to engaging all the talents of all their people, regardless of their job title, education level, or pay grade.

Even though we know that broad-based experience is important to innovative thinking?

We say that, but in reality, we tend to put ourselves and other people in boxes that limit our perceptions of what’s possible. We ask kids to choose a college major at 19, and that choice is likely to define the rest of their lives.

Imagine an employee who works in accounting but tinkers brilliantly with robotics at home. He comes up with a great idea to solve a critical problem at his company through automation, but where can he share it? In the average company, the answer is “nowhere,” because he’s in a box labeled “accountant.” His manager will tell him to get back to his numbers. Engineering will ignore him. He’ll give up, and the organization will have lost the opportunity to harness his brilliance, all because he has a degree in accounting instead of engineering.

You advocate using a process you call Improvisational Innovation to encourage big ideas. How does it help to think like an actor who has to respond on a dime?

So much of the art of risk-taking is about saying “yes, and …”—being in the moment and learning how to adjust. The moment you say “no” or “yes, but …” to someone’s idea, you squash their enthusiasm. If you want people to bring you the next big idea, you’ve got to make it safe for them to risk bringing it forth.

Just as improvisation builds on a structure, companies need an underlying discipline that turns creativity into viable products and services. It has to be a highly structured process that takes place at least annually and invites everyone to participate.

How do you reward employees who bring forth great ideas?

Once an idea for a new process or product is vetted and approved, you have to support the inventor fully. If the idea is on the road to generating revenue, you don’t offer a bonus. You treat the inventor as a partner and offer equity in the investment.

How can managers become more comfortable with risk?

Risk-taking is the last undefined leadership tool, and it must be practiced. The fastest path to success is failing often and quickly. One employee at a leading pharmaceutical company even suggested keeping failures in an open-source database, with examples of people who took risks and kept their jobs. Imagine the possibilities if people knew they could actually be recognized for failing well!

Fawn Fitter

About Fawn Fitter

Fawn Fitter is based in San Francisco, where she writes about the spots where business and technology intersect.