‘Safe Harbor’ Innovation: The Heart of Teamwork

We often talk about collaboration as a means of fueling innovation in business. My experience with PennCLO, the University of Pennsylvania’s Chief Learning Officer doctorate program that I completed in May, helped me to refine my thoughts on this. The PennCLO program has offered me a unique, real-world program focused on re-learning and challenging my assumptions about business and learning.


The PennCLO program relies on a “cohort” methodology of learning, which greatly enhanced my thinking and spurred my learning throughout the program. Cohorts are not simply collaborators. They are people who are willing to do independent work while also broadening their thinking and actions by accepting the influence of others. Each cohort group was made up of individuals from different backgrounds, all of whom were united in the goals of learning and changing learning itself. This manifested in discussions during which differing viewpoints (on topics such as interacting with executive management) were entertained. For me, “learning” came to mean listening, accurately restating the issue, and employing probing questions. It was not a mere race to a solution.

The support offered through the cohort system allowed for deeper, richer discussions that were based on established relationships and the shared desire to complete the program through the dissertation stage. After thirty years in the business world, participating in an environment that encouraged the free, frank and open exchange of ideas while at the same time remaining supportive and nonjudgemental was a refreshing experience.

How many times as executives have we asked why our employees don’t think out of the box? In most cases they don’t because we have not created a safe environment for them to do so. Creativity is the lifeblood of innovation, which is the driving force behind business success today. There is no lack of creative potential in the workforce. However, tapping into this creativity requires leaders to consciously, deliberately create the right sort of environment.

For me, the optimal work environment is one that encourages risks, permits failures but quickly rebounds from them, and learns from failure. It nurtures an atmosphere of collaboration, trust, and respect and has employees who mirror these attributes. The result of all of this is creativity, new ideas, and innovation. It’s a model that works. In the end, if a company generates 100 business ideas, launches ten of them, and finds success in one, it will have created a financial model that can support the risk.