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Innovation Culture Bulletin: Conviction v Flexibility

Work & Lifestyle

As an entrepreneur, it is often difficult to know when to challenge your ideas, and when to exercise absolute conviction. We explore this paradox, and offer ways to help you harness risk-taking and foster innovation.

We often hear successful entrepreneurs attribute their successes to having conviction in their own beliefs. At the same time, they stress that adaptability is one of the most important strategies for building a thriving startup. So how can we be sure when it’s the right time to stick or twist, and what are the key lessons that exist in this peculiar paradox?

First, lets talk about conviction. Our brains are wired to overreact to uncertainty with fear — this evolutionary trait can save our lives when we move to another environment, and help us be extra cautious of new threats hiding in caves or behind bushes. But today, heightened uncertainty can be an obstacle and make us work less efficiently.

As a result, conviction is generally held to be a good quality in leaders. Establishing an atmosphere of positive conviction instills a feeling of security in the rest of the team. Uncertainty causes the release of cortisol, a stress hormone that disrupts memory, and increases the risk of high blood pressure and depression. So when a manager acts with absolute confidence in his decisions, employees can feel less anxious about the work they are doing.

At the same time, being open to new ideas is vital for innovation. New employees could sometimes have the best ideas, but feel discouraged to express them if a leader is overly confident about the existing framework. Similarly, customer-facing employees, who regularly receive feedback on a product and have the most subjective perspective of the business, would no doubt have some of the most up-to-date and important ideas about how to improve. The Springwise-featured MakerNurse, an educational workspace that helps nurses build solutions to unique patient scenarios, provides a great solution for companies wanting to foster this often neglected source of innovation.

It is true that when we have a deeply held belief, our cognitive systems want to work to preserve it. But this doesn’t account for the change-driven industry landscapes around us, which seem to shift every second. So how do we know when to question our ideas and take risks, or have confidence in the plan ahead and make judgment calls? Instead of the usual Innovation Bulletin Five this month, we’re going to break this question down into three parts to help offer some clarity around this tricky issue.

1. When to have conviction. When a leader shows conviction, it is good for employee innovation, as uncertainty can be perceived as a threat to workers. Lazlo Bock, head of People Operations at Google noted in his new book that when employees feel a “psychological safety” — because they believe in the members of their team — they are more likely to perform better due to being more comfortable with taking risks. Just like in a baseball team, individuals play better when certain confident captains are also on the field. This is also important for diversity, as it encourages the quieter employees, whose ideas can often be overlooked, to step up.

Having clearly defined goals and being away from distracting stimuli can also be good for tasks that benefit from immediate action. Think crisis management, nearing deadlines, or answering a pile of long ignored emails.

2. When to pause and adapt. Be wary of existing systems, ideas or ways of working that are deemed untouchable. Anything that has a perceived ‘fail-proof’-ness should be questioned, as everything can be improved. If a marketing strategy or a website function is seen as the holy-grail — as something that works every time — don’t be afraid to question it: be very wary of having a formulaic business plan. A/B testing software and plugins make experimenting simple, and there are many platforms that let you change an entire website without any coding, or test ideas on social media before posting. In Canada, a Springwise-featured social enterprise is aiming to accelerate the country’s tech industry by renting out mobile phones for cheap to app developers for testing.

3. How to be flexible. Staying close to people who work most differently to you can help you on this. If you have a friend who is in a completely different industry to you, make sure to consult them when you encounter a difficult problem. Their experience, which, on the surface may seem irrelevant to you, could offer new ways of thinking. Seek and carefully consider negative feedback — keeping these “no people” around you helps build an intellectual humility that many argue is essential for innovative thinking. Jut make sure that they are delivering their “no” in a way that inspires change for the better, rather than leading you to stop altogether. Similarly, hiring diversely — be it gender, age, or educational and professional backgrounds — could also help.

You could also set defined goals to encourage different thinking and challenges to the status quo. Just as scientists meticulously go over every step of experimentation, try to find errors in theories the team hold to be true. The best processes provide an opportunity for people to make mistakes and learn from the data. Remember that trying on new ideas doesn’t mean adopting them whole, or even for a period of time longer than a week — spending time assessing the different paths your business could take will be a constructive exercise in itself.


As always, we are sharing our office-friendly Spotify playlist, this time designed to provide morning motivation for your team. If you have any feedback or thoughts, don’t hesitate to share with us.