As part of my social media experimentation and engagement strategy (that’s code for “learning it by doing it”), I sometimes participate in one of Harvard Business Review’s #HBRchat sessions on Twitter about leadership.
These can be a great—if chaotic—place to discuss business and management issues with other leaders on Twitter. Even if you miss the weekly chat sessions, the posted recaps always include a few insightful zingers, in tidy 140-character bites.
One of the questions I recently answered was “What are the qualities of a great leader?” My immediate tweet back? “A sense of fun.”
During the chat, I went on to argue that the most effective leaders make a conscious effort to build a sense of fun in their teams. They are intentionally approachable, which in turn encourages people to go out on a limb, look silly and even fail.
Let me put it another way: I strongly believe that leaders with a sense of fun will get better ideas from their team, because their team members will be less afraid to propose or pursue them.
I can tell you this: I can offer up the most hair-brained idea to my CEO fearlessly. While I typically put serious effort and thought into honing things before they get in front of him, I still feel the sense of fun, the permission to be foolish that makes innovation possible.
For example, at Pixar, mistakes are celebrated along with successes—the nothing-ventured, nothing-gained mantra is “He who fails the most wins.” Pixar’s appetite for risk has removed layers of fear that stifle creativity and limit an individual’s willingness to go out on a limb with a crazy idea.
What I love is that Pixar hired top-notch creatives who were considered “unmanageable” and gave this group free reign to do their best work. Result? Their film, The Incredibles, won Academy Awards and became a best-selling DVD, even though its budget per minute was lower than any previous Pixar film.
I have to imagine that fun was more than just a movie goal. It was an essential mandate for being part of the team.
Google tells a similar success story; it enables its engineers to spend one day per week or up to 20% of their time working on anything that interests them. Here, I see fun at work as a product of autonomy—getting to choose to do what you love.
Both Google News and Google Product Search were spawned by this permission to innovate. Pulitzer-winning author David Vise explained, “Google … technologists think first of ways to solve problems; only later, if ever, do they worry about how to ‘monetize’ them.”
One of my most successful projects was proposed twice, dismissed twice, and finally left for dead by a boss that fostered a sense of fear, not fun, in the workplace. It’s hard to keep pushing your idea at what feels like a brick wall.
But, when things changed and I had a new opportunity to pitch my idea, the project was resurrected (and we had a lot of fun doing it).
Fun beat fear, and the results speak for themselves.
What’s getting in the way of your ability to innovate? Maybe it’s a lack of fun, or the presence of fear of failure. So instead of tackling the innovation problem, consider taking a step back and asking a simpler question: How can we make this more fun?