LMP Focus Areas

Workforce of the Future

Contradictions That Foster Innovation

alt="Amy Edmondson"

Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson

Amy Edmondson says innovation depends on a culture of focused chaos.

Those words sound like opposites. They are. Don’t worry. It’s not a mistake.

In fact, innovation depends on four pairs of seeming opposites. As unit-based teams ramp up, involving frontline managers, physicians and employees in finding new ways to improve performance and transform health care, they can benefit from creating a culture of innovation. This is how Edmonson, a professor at Harvard Business School, defines the four cultural contradictions of innovation:

  • Chaotic/focused
  • Playful/disciplined
  • Deep expertise/broad thinking
  • Promotes high standards/tolerates failure

Let's take a more detailed look.


“An innovation culture is focused,” says Edmondson. “It is really intent on improving a process or inventing a new business model or coming up with a new product.” At the same time, it is chaotic. “Any idea is welcome and possible—at least until we sort it out. No idea is a bad idea—at least early in the process.”Chaos, says Edmondson, “is about welcoming all ideas, even ‘wacky’ ideas.” Only in a psychologically safe learning environment will employees feel open enough to offer these “wacky” ideas, she adds.


The Labor Management Partnership offers a disciplined process for innovation in the form of the Rapid Improvement Model (RIM) and the plan, do, study, act cycle. But, Edmondson emphasizes, teams use these tools “without knowing in advance what the answer is.” There is a careful and well-managed process, but the content of the conversations about improving performance must be open and inclusive. As teams begin a performance improvement project, UBT leaders need to be very clear about what aspect of performance they are trying to address—not on how the team is going to do it.

Deep expertise/broad thinking

An innovative team is one that values those who bring deep expertise (in a specific topic, subject area or clinical specialty, for instance) and people who are broad, general thinkers who span boundaries. “Both of those skill sets are absolutely essential at the same time,” says Edmondson.

Promotes high standards/tolerates failure

In an innovative work culture, “We hold very high standards but we are also very tolerant of failure,” says Edmondson. “That sounds ‘wrong,’ at first,” she admits, “but it is essential because, in innovation, you will never get it right the first time. You try something, test it out, it’s not going to work quite right and then you either tweak it or throw it out altogether and try something else.”

Spreading new ideas that get results throughout a large organization such as Kaiser Permanente, says Edmondson, requires finding ways to “shine a very quiet spotlight”—another seeming contradiction!—on innovators so others become aware of what they are doing and are drawn to try it too. 

“In today’s world, there are two ways to get the word out,” she says. The first is face-to-face communication, “positive buzz that starts locally and spreads.” The other is internal online social networks as “a way to listen, motivate and share practices that are potentially better.”

“It can catch on,” says Edmondson. “When there are pockets of effectiveness, other people see them, and they want to play too.”

Write/Tipsheet - ColorCreate a Learning Environment

Here are some additional resources from Amy Edmondson to help your team learn and grow.

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