Four Essential Conditions For Innovation To Flourish In Any Organization

This is the first of four articles by Rod Githens describing aspects of our Multi-Faceted Approach to Innovation. The model provides a robust approach to fostering systematic organizational change.  The first article below outlines facet #1: the typical conditions necessary for organizational innovation.

Figure 1. Four Typical Conditions for Innovation

Figure 1. Four Typical Conditions for Innovation

Over the years, I’ve seen innovation thrown around as a buzzword or a mystical, aspirational concept. Fortunately, we can achieve innovation by using some accepted methods rather than by merely hoping we’ll achieve it.

When a leadership team begins pursuing innovation, they can begin with an innovation readiness assessment. This process helps identify the minimum conditions an organization needs to meet to “open the door” to innovation. I call these the Conditions for Innovation. The conditions vary slightly in each organization, but I’ll discuss some typical conditions in this article.

Connecting with Strategy

Employees need a “why.” I like to frame innovation as a way to solve complex problems and take advantage of new opportunities. Leaders must identify the connection between a shifting organizational context and the need to do things differently. Innovation provides structured methods for carrying out organizational strategy in a new way.

Sometimes this means updating organizational values or strategic plans to reflect the emphasis on innovation. Other times, executive leadership can repeatedly reiterate the need for new ways of working to face complex challenges.

Understanding Informed Risk

Pursuing innovation doesn’t mean removing the guardrails. Instead, we need to help leaders and employees assess risk and seize opportunities where the potential gain is greater than the potential loss. Framing innovation through the lens of informed risk can help organizations change even if they have an inherent need to avoid risk, as government agencies, utilities, and health organizations do.

We’ve found it helpful when leaders engage in robust conversations about what informed risk looks like within their context. Once executive leaders understand the concept, they can use the language of informed risk as an important gateway to innovation.

Embracing “Safe to Fail” Experiments

Figure 2. Possible Scope for Change versus Scope in a Learning Experiment.

Figure 2. Possible Scope for Change versus Scope in a Learning Experiment.

In complex, shifting contexts, we can’t plan a perfect solution and simply carry it out. Instead, we must test it in small-scale ways to gather data and then keep adjusting and retesting it until we figure out what works best. Safe to Fail experiments are very early tests of a solution to see whether it’s worth pursuing further. We do these experiments by setting extreme limits on the time invested, the number of people or sites involved, and the scope of the “bet.”

These limits help us avoid the typical tendency to invest many resources in the “perfect solution” that we pilot. In pilots, we’re often trying to show success rather than to gather data for further learning. Instead, we need to run various cycles of testing in limited ways before we’re ready to pilot. By running many small experiments with various solutions, we can see which solutions emerge as worth exploring further.

Promoting Psychological Safety

To run Safe to Fail experiments, leaders must promote an environment where employees feel safe to try new things. The best way to do this is by cultivating psychological safety, in which people believe they won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

Initially, when hearing the term psychological safety, some leaders think it’s an unnecessary “warm and fuzzy” concept not relevant to their organizations. However, research by Amy Edmondson and others repeatedly finds financial benefit, risk reduction, and increased physical safety (e.g., in healthcare) in teams where leaders promote psychological safety.

Leaders can promote a culture of learning from failure in Safe to Fail experiments by helping their teams:1 2


  • Detect failure very early
  • Analyze failure to figure out what went wrong
  • Promote failure as a great learning opportunity (and then go on to share what the team learned from the failure)


These Conditions for Innovation apply to many organizational contexts but might look different depending on the results of an innovation readiness assessment. Organizational sector, culture, history, and leadership all affect the conditions an organization needs. No matter what specific conditions an organization needs, it’s essential that leaders consider what they need to do to promote a culture of innovation.

In future articles, I’ll describe each of the conditions in more detail. Our Multi-Faceted Approach to Innovation helps organizations learn how to meet the conditions for innovation, understand building blocks in organizational culture, recognize the various types of innovation, and lead their organizations through an innovation process.


1Center for Creative Leadership
2Adapted from Edmondson, Amy C. (2012) Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy.


About the Author

Rod Githens, Ph.D.


Rod specializes in innovation, design, and strategy through his consulting work and as a professor at University of the Pacific. He helps leaders get results through using innovation and creativity processes, strategy development and strategic planning, group facilitation and action planning, and program and initiative development. More


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