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Interview with Dr. Frederik G. Pferdt on innovations Keeping an open mind

Issue 01/2020

At the Bauerfeind Industry Forum, Dr. Frederik G. Pferdt suggested that people should try out new ideas more often. In this interview with life, Google’s “Chief Innovation Evangelist” and Stanford University adjunct professor, explains how to encourage employees to break with routine, and why this needs more than a coffee machine and table football.

Dr. Frederik G. Pferdt explains why staff diversity helps companies to be innovative.

Bauerfeind life: You travel around the world a lot. Are there any nationalities that are more open to innovation than others?

Dr. Pferdt: Interestingly, no. Thinking patterns are all very similar. For example, something we call “unconscious bias”. Meaning, we pigeonhole people very quickly. On the one hand, that helps us to make decisions, of course. But on the other hand, it stops us from being open and a little more inclusive. Let me give you an example: whenever we employ people who look, talk and think like us, there’s no chance of promoting diversity in our own organization. Being innovative means including different viewpoints and ways of thinking, breaking with routine and trying experiments.

Experimenting sounds good. But how do you respond to people who ask, “If my employees are only ever experimenting and trying out something, who will bedoing the work?”

Dr. Pferdt: If we don’t indulge in experimenting and we don’t try out new things, we will not learn anything. And in times where a lot changes very quickly, we have to learn all the more quickly. Some say that work means doing only what we know will go smoothly. For me, work also means investing in something that we don’t yet know will work out. That will help us to develop ideas and solutions for the future.

 

“If we don’t indulge in experimenting and we don’t try out new things, we will not learn anything.”

Dr. Frederik G. Pferdt

What can I do if an employee approaches me and says: “This idea is nonsense”? How can management react in the best possible way to new ideas?

Dr. Pferdt: No idea is nonsense. You can learn from every idea. You need to show openness coupled with optimism. This person needs to be encouraged to try the idea, to find out whether and how it actually works, or what doesn’t (yet) work. Nobody can know that. You, as the leader, have the task to encourage others and to say: “Why don’t you prove yourself whether this idea works or not. Then we’ll talk about it again.”

On their way to becoming a more innovative organization, many traditional companies invest in table football , cappuccino makers, etc. Does that help?

Dr. Pferdt: In my opinion, those are ultimately artifacts or symbols that send a certain signal and can represent a particular corporate culture. But this doesn’t need to be the case. Those things are designed to make the environment inviting to try something out. It’s not wrong to invest in those things. However, these objects then need to be approached in the right way to originate certain values in the company. If the coffee maker or the football table mustn’t be used, or may be used only by a certain group of people, or if it needs to be paid for, then those are contradictions. Then you can see that the company values don’t match the message the artifacts are trying to send out. I feel that it’s important to align values and symbols. But it’s even more important to create an environment where everyone is allowed to bring in opinions, and where everyone is treated with respect. And whether you then need a cool lounge corner or similar to support this, is for you to decide.

Being innovative also means breaking with some routines. How important is tradition?

Dr. Pferdt: Tradition is definitely very important. But it mustn’t be confused with “not doing anything new”. You should always indulge in the passion of trying something new. However, you should always recall your traditions, and what you have learned from them. We often confuse tradition with standing still. In my opinion, tradition is a sign that you’ve done something well – or even made some mistakes along the way. But you’ve always learned something. And that you can hopefully say to yourself in the future with conviction: “I can’t wait to try something new to continue learning”.

 

“It’s important to create an environment where everyone is allowed to bring in opinions.”

Dr. Frederik G. Pferdt

Is there a simple exercise to inspire courage in employees to try something new?

Dr. Pferdt: You can ask them, for example, to leave the well-trodden path during everyday activities, to dare to try something new – perhaps go to work a different way, try a new restaurant or a new way of thinking – then we’ll have a look at what kind of emotions are aroused. For many, change and innovation are connected with anxieties. Will I like the food in the new restaurant? Is another way really faster? Will this approach to the problem really work? It’s good to face these anxieties and to talk about them. You’ll soon realize that these fears won’t come true, and you may even feel elated when you’ve tried something new or learned something. It can also be helpful to share in the next meeting that you’ve tried something new. And to describe which emotions and learning effects resulted from it. You can be an example and encourage others to follow and to try new paths themselves.

Images: Bauerfeind