What is the next best thing we can do? Make error – by failing we create innovations

What is the next best thing we can do? Make error – by failing we create innovations


There are no stupid questions – successful leaders are not afraid to ask questions? The fact that a leader asks questions is not a sign of weakness but rather a strength. A leader does not know everything and cannot know everything. What is the next best thing we can do? Making a mistake! I try to teach my children who are 9 and 7 years, that the next best thing we can do is to make a mistake. The same, I always try to take with me in my leadership. Oh … .is allowed to make mistakes? employees and children ask me. To this I answer a clear and resounding YES! “The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate” – The best is obviously doing something entirely correct all the time, but it is not possible. The worst thing one can do is to do nothing. If we going to have innovation we need to create a space where it’s room to fail, this is the only way we can develop ourselves on. Hopefully one does not the same mistakes time twice. There are three kinds of people, there are those who make things happen, those who see things happen and those that wondered what happened. To make things happen one need to be willing to fail, nothing will happen by thinking of it. When I sit down with my son helping him with Norwegian, English or Russian dictation, it is rare when he makes the dictation correctly at the first rehearsal. It’s okay, and that’s how we learn, it is allowed to fail. Next time we rehearse, so there are fewer errors than the first time and the last rehearsal is all correct. This has also been a learning process for the kid and he has understood that it is by practicing and making mistakes that one can get an accurate end result. The same applies within any organization, we must create greater room to be allowed to fail. Developing a good, self-organizational culture does not happen overnight and takes time. The main input factor in an organization is usually the intellectual capital (employee) and it is the employee who is responsible for the most valuable core processes for value creation in an organization. Then it is important that we have created an organizational culture where there is room to be allowed to fail and learn from our mistakes. The organizational culture controls unproven the daily choices, behavior, effort and the results that are cabinets in an organization. While we will create room for error, we must also create an opportunity to ask critical questions. It must not be so that those who set the critical issues are seen as sand in the gears and critics.

Although it apparently may seem obvious and obviously it is not necessarily so

We keep hearing that there are no stupid questions, however, we hear time and again that people are declared stupid and expanding because they ask simple questions. We keep hearing that some say it is, of course, and it’s obvious. Yes, it is so obvious? If you ask one quantum physicists will never get to answer that it is the course and it’s obvious. For although it apparently may seem obvious and obviously it is not necessarily so. If you ask most people; What happens if I do not have a bouncing ball in the floor, it bounces back, most say and that is evident and obvious. A quantum physicist would say everything depends on time, place, surface, rotation of bouncing ball, hits the point where the ball hits the ground, etc. Bottom line so it is perhaps not so obviously still. Therefore it is important to create a culture to be allowed to make mistakes and be allowed to ask simple and obvious question that may not be so obvious anyway. The day we stop to marvel over the simplest things we stagnate. To be allowed to marvel is driving innovation and building a learning organization culture. Senior executives have to embraced this point of view, coming to understand what innovators have always known: that failure is a prerequisite to invention. A business can’t develop a breakthrough product or process if it’s not willing to encourage risk taking and learn from subsequent mistakes. First and foremost, though, failure-tolerant leaders push people to see beyond simplistic, traditional definitions of failure. They know that as long as someone views failure as the opposite of success rather than its complement, that person will never be able to take the risks necessary for innovation.

There are failures and there are failures

Of course, there are failures and there are failures. Some mistakes are lethal—producing and marketing a dysfunctional heart machine, for example. At no time can management be casual about issues of health and safety. But encouraging failure doesn’t mean abandoning supervision, quality control, or respect for sound practices. Just the opposite. Managing for failure requires executives to be more engaged, not less. Although mistakes are inevitable when launching innovation initiatives, management cannot abdicate its responsibility to assess the nature of the failures. Some are excusable errors; others are simply the result of sloppiness. Those willing to take a close look at what happened and why can usually tell the difference. Failure-tolerant leaders identify excusable mistakes and approach them as outcomes to be examined, understood, and built upon. They often ask simple but illuminating questions when a project falls short of its goals:

  • Was the project designed conscientiously, or was it carelessly organized?
  • Could the failure have been prevented with more thorough research or consultation?
  • Was the project a collaborative process, or did those involved resist useful input from colleagues or fail to inform interested parties of their progress?
  • Did the project remain true to its goals, or did it appear to be driven solely by personal interests?
  • Were projections of risks, costs, and timing honest or deceptive?
  • Were the same mistakes made repeatedly?

Distinguishing between excusable and inexcusable failure

Distinguishing between excusable and inexcusable failure offers two broad benefits. First, it gives managers a tool to build a nonpunitive environment for mistake making while allowing them to encourage thoughtfully pursued projects that, should they fail, will yield productive mistakes. Second, it allows managers to nonjudgmental promote the sort of productive mistake making that is the basis for learning. By revealing what doesn’t work—in the lab or in the marketplace—a failure flowing from a carefully designed and executed project provides insight into what will work.

Success can be approached in much the same way. Like mistakes, all successes are not created equal. A success due to a fortunate accident is not the organizational equivalent of one resulting from a thoughtfully pursued project. Thus, successes might be approached with questions similar to those posed about failures. How much was due to good fortune, how much to the hard work of its creators? Were all contributors acknowledged? Did the success move us closer to our goals? Will it actually serve customers’ needs or simply merit an award from peers? By taking this perspective and raising such questions, managers can begin to treat success and failure similarly, more like the siblings they actually are.

Some managers may find that idea difficult to embrace. Treat success and failure the same? Shouldn’t I reward success? And even if I don’t reprimand an employee who fails, shouldn’t I at least call attention to the mistake? Well, no. We suggest a different approach.

Create engagement in the organization

Often we see that senior executives try to pursue success for every cost. Rather than pursue success alone, one should focus on increasing the organizations’ intellectual capital: the experience, knowledge, and creativity of the workforce. How? Through engagement. To succeed one need to take a tangible interest in the organizations employees’ projects. Instead of simply evaluating an employee’s efforts, one should try to understand the work, interpret it, and discover its meaning to the individual. Often, one is in a position to see the work in a larger context, making them the ideal people to discuss a project’s history, goals, and larger significance to the organization.

That process is more collaborative than supervisory. Failure-tolerant executives show interest, express support, and ask pertinent questions: What’s new with your project? What kinds of problems are you having? Taking the long view, what might the next steps be? Conversations are less about whether the project is succeeding or failing than about what can be learned from the experience. I have often been asked how do you succeed Glenn? by asking question I answer, generally people like to talk about their jobs and give some advice to improve the work process, and as a senior executive I get a lot of information by asking questions. My experience is when a senior executives and employee are deeply engaged in that discussion, both of them enter the same kind of high-performance zone that athletes do when they’re operating at their very best. In this zone, evaluation is less relevant than the subject of where to go from here. Listening is more central to this process than talking, my mentor through 11 years, Mr. Bård Mikkelsen, former President & CEO of Statkraft always said it’s a reason why we are created with two ears and one mouth.  Research on workplace creativity shows that it’s not the individual employee’s freedom as much as managerial involvement that produces creative acts. No incentive can match the obvious appreciation shown by a senior executives’s interest and enthusiasm.

New ideas are most likely to emerge in the workplace when managers treat steps in the innovation process—those that work and those that don’t—with less evaluation and more interpretation. They don’t praise or penalize; they analyze.

Less praise? Haven’t managers been told not to skimp on compliments? They have indeed. But psychologists who have studied the effects of praise question its value. As with criticism, compliments can actually demotivate people. Recipients may feel manipulated or think too much is expected of them. Research has found that children playing games lose interest once they’re rewarded or complimented for their play. In one study, students praised less by their science teachers did a better job of conducting experiments on their own than the ones who were praised more. In the workplace, praise can become what is called a “dissatisfier.” Like a salary, it is less likely to motivate when it’s given out than demotivate when it’s expected but withheld. So a manager cannot suddenly stop praising an employee who has come to expect it. But when an engaged manager takes a genuine interest in an employee’s work, the need for compliments declines.

Collaborate to Innovate

Creating a culture in which people feel comfortable with failure also requires abandoning traditional ideas about personal competition. The idea that achievement is maximized when we go at one another tooth and nail is engraved on our national psyche. But when the road to success requires making others fail, innovation gets left by the wayside. Competition infects coworkers with a desire to win rather than to solve problems and move projects forward. In the process, employees inhibit the free flow of information so vital to innovation. Those who feel their work is being judged on conventional concepts of success and failure, and who feel they’re competing with coworkers for the brass ring, will want to protect information rather than share it. This is a textbook way to squelch innovation. Companies become the losers.

Prizes for performance are especially effective at undermining teamwork because they place competition above collaboration. A food services company we’ll call Comestibles once had a contest that awarded regional offices that posted the best sales records. Those who won got free vacations. This competition produced a few happy winners and lots of disgruntled losers. Winning became such a fetish that Comestibles’ employees began hoarding information they might otherwise have shared with one another. Some even fudged their figures to gain an edge. Rather than encourage employees to collaborate and share information, Comestibles’ motivational program created an atmosphere of competition that stifled creativity, openness, and honesty.

Failure-tolerant leaders encourage collaboration, understanding that it is the real road to innovation. They see it as the best means for tapping into the imaginations of employees who are not especially competitive but who might have invaluable, innovative ideas. Because such people don’t feel the need to win every exchange of ideas, they don’t do well in gatherings of colleagues playing verbal king-of-the-mountain.

What’s really going on in these groups is courage enhancement. By creating an atmosphere of safety and reducing the pressure to succeed, the groups give people the confidence to share their ideas. Employees who once felt inhibited suddenly feel free to express their thoughts, frequently contributing to the innovations that drive the company.

Failure-tolerant leaders send clear messages to their organizations that constructive mistakes are not only acceptable but worthwhile. Employees feel that they have been given the green light to set out and explore, no longer thinking in terms of success or failure but instead in terms of learning and experience. And that’s the key to coming up with breakthrough products and processes: viewing mistakes for the educational tools they are and as signposts on the road to success.


Leave a Reply