One of my all-time favorite movies is 1492: Conquest to Paradise, in which Christopher Columbus states in the prologue: “nothing that results from human progress is achieved with unanimous consent.”

Christopher Columbus purportedly once said, “nothing that results from human progress is achieved with unanimous consent.”


There’s a term that Columbus would certainly have hated: groupthink. Groupthink describes the dynamic when teams or companies coalesce around a direction, idea, or belief without proper scrutiny.  It typically germinates because of its origin (e.g. stature of the source), and/or the general lack of intellectual curiosity or courage to challenge the situation based on the team or organization’s culture.

The term, however, I would argue does not adequately encompass a phenomenon that has rapidly risen to equal significance and concern. I call it the corporate safe space — and it’s not quite what it sounds like.

What is a corporate safe space?

Corporate safe spaces are areas (vacuums if you will) where new ideas are sheltered, coveted, and/or intentionally kept from scrutiny because they are perceived as too pure or early-stage. The premise of a ‘safe space strategy’ is that the ideas need time to flourish and grow into their own natural habitat — all without external pressures, like funding or market fit.

A dose of Darwinism is all it takes to conclude that there has to be some form of natural selection.  Ideas, like organisms, need to be subject to harsh conditions to evolve.  They need to be poked, prodded, and dissected. The weakest parts must be killed off in favor of the most distinct, powerful bits.

The challenge with this lies in the degree.  Go too far, and many innovations go extinct before they ever have a chance.  Overprotect, and ideas emerge too fragile to survive. This is a difficult balance to strike. But it’s in this balance between scrutiny and freedom that defines true innovation.

In many companies’ zeal to harbor an innovative culture, there is a tendency to avoid premature questioning. Conversely, other companies have harshly competitive cultures that destroy fledgling ideas quickly and coldly.

It is no wonder the success rate for innovation is a paltry 10 to 15 percent. And that’s the success rate even as a vast majority of companies say that innovation is a top priority. So what to do?  There are many practices to consider, and they’re not mutually exclusive.

Two primary findings from the Institute of Innovation in Large Organizations that identified two common characteristics of companies that have successfully sustained a steady stream of disruptive innovations.
  1. They establish a framework for lowering the cost of failure. This is done by measuring the risk to the brand’s reputation, as well as the opportunity cost of the money and time invested in any given innovation. 
  2. They value discovery over prediction. This means that you must talk to customers often, and bring them into the process. While this can be messy and unpredictable, it brings the decisions closer to the customer and gives more fuel to the ideas most suited to customers’ needs.

How to foster a culture of experimentation

From my perspective, I also see an additional three areas to explore for companies of all sizes that want to not only foster a culture of experimentation but also actually forge paths to commercializing these fresh ideas.

  • The wisdom of the crowd. Companies like AT&T use Spigit to incorporate pairwise voting methodology. This feedback maintains a level playing field, as ideas are brought forth through the tool in order to eliminate the “cartel effect”. Their longstanding philosophy is that  “great ideas can come from anywhere, and anyone.” Bringing out the fun of the process is advantageous, as it engages all levels of the company with the potential of fresh ideas. Even few ideas make it through to fruition, there’s a palatable engagement that comes with pulling in the entire organization.
  • Swimming with the sharks. Designate an executive body across varying fields and interests to vet the merits of ideas. Ideas are considered on a conditional basis that requires certain criteria be met before it can advance to receive additional investment and/or resource. PepsiCo, GM, and many others have recently employed such an approach. By formalizing the structure around idea generation, companies offer a forum to anyone with a potential game-changing idea. And having a rapid route to executive buy-in gives the best ideas a fast track forward.
  • Off to the races. Sprints have become much more of a popular practice as of late, ousting traditional forms of brainstorming. Devised by Google Ventures Design Partner Jake Knapp, a sprint is comprised of a small, multi-faceted/level team defining a problem, creating multiple approaches to solving, voting anonymously, prototyping, and testing — all in five days. There are multiple advantages to running sprints to quickly build and test new ideas. It takes some of the risk out of the equation by giving employees a safe space to explore, as well as to put a hard stop to the process.

For innovation to be sticky, such practices must become part of your culture’s bedrock from top to bottom. Encouraging dissent and fostering collaboration are not diametrically opposing principles.  Finding the right balance, as well as the process to support ideation and metrics to track progress, is a challenge worth taking on.

The riskiest part might be not trying at all.