What are the challenges for women in innovation at work?
A Hewlett Packard internal report found that if a man applies for a job or a promotion, if they only have 60% of the qualifications they’ll still apply. If a woman sees the same job or promotion, even if they have nearly everything required, on average they won’t apply as they don’t have the full 100% of qualifications. I found this to be a similar culture when I was doing stand-up comedy. While it’s got a little better nowadays, often you would be the one women out of 10 acts.
We’re brought up in this environment thinking: “Well, I don’t want to be representing women badly, so I’d better be perfect before I go in”. The mindset being that if I’m not perfect then what’s the point of walking in the door? That’s such a huge barrier. If you’re not even in the room how do you even begin to innovate?
So I think it’s about knowing that failure is fine, learning is fine and being seen to learn is fine. Even if you get kick-back from an old-school environment then maybe knowing all of this for yourself is also fine, even if you have to put up with some crap for it.
Find that backbone and community of the other women in your environment. Make sure other women are being heard if they’re not being listened to around a boardroom table. One way of doing this is ‘amplification’, a technique popularised by the Obama administration. When a woman made an important point, other women in the meeting would repeat the idea as well as crediting it as her idea so it couldn’t be drowned out. So you’re calling out that it’s their idea, who said it and what it is, until that thing gets picked up on and talked about. Because no one can move on if all of the women in the room are still repeating that same thing, which is awesome.
Women are not women’s competition. There’s room for everyone and the more we back each other up, the more space we have to be part of the team and to innovate. Get on board, agree and have each others’ backs.
How can we be more innovative at work?
A lot of people quote ‘quality over quantity’, well actually the more quantity you have the more you get to pick out the quality. People’s first five ideas for something often aren’t the best ones, it tends to be way down the line. In corporate workshops we’ll often get people to list 50 ideas for this or that in a short space of time and then go back and pick the ones that work.
At the moment I’m working for Cards Against Humanity. I’ll write 30 white cards and from that I’ll pick my favourite handful and those are the ones I’ll end up pitching. Start with quantity, it gets the juices flowing and you end up not being so precious about each individual idea. If you’re inner editor is coming in at the same time as you’re generating ideas, your critical brain will analyse every single idea asking ‘is this good enough?’ You end up spending too long on each idea and over thinking it. So just have a tonne of stuff and then pick out the things afterwards that you want to spend more time innovating.
Failure is such a weird word anyway. Saying that X amount of these ideas don’t work is such a pointless spin on “We’ve had this one good idea because you’ve spent time coming up with fifty”.
How do we create a safe space in a collaborative work environment?
In terms of a safe space it’s about setting expectations. Putting people in the headspace where they know that they’re safely allowed to fail. This is weirdly harder than you imagine it is to do because as soon as you put people into the work environment, they know they have a short amount of time to deliver on something good. However, If you create an environment where people feel that they’re allowed to say their piece without being shamed or told they’re wrong, then I think anyone is prepared to be vulnerable and say what they think.
Also, make sure there’s space for people. While there are people (like me) who are quite happy to bang on for ages about stuff, there are other people who might need a bit more permission or space. So if there is someone who is quietly sat there forever, maybe just open the door and ask “What do you think?” It’s the same as when we perform improv on stage, if you see someone who has been on the side for ages, you’re going to initiate a scene that involves that person. It’s the same as in a meeting. Why have you got that person in the room? Clearly they’ve got something there that you need, otherwise why are they even there?
Make sure there’s space for them and if you are one of those people who are assertive, why don’t you shut up for a bit and see what you can listen to? Power isn’t always in what you’re saying, it’s sometimes in what you’re hearing.