Applauding mistakes

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August 21st, 2012

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Gary Miles says  learning from mistakes is key to innovation in a blog first published on People Management online

Much is made of Britain’s knowledge economy. The Government often cites it as a route to growth. It was a major theme throughout the Olympics, from the blaze of colour, sound and narrative of the opening ceremony, celebrating our industrial origins and growth in science and technology, to the Government’s business summits at Lancaster House throughout the games aiming to showcase innovation ripe for investment.

But it was down to earth with a bump when the latest figures came out showing just how much organisations are struggling to grow in the current economic climate.  There are not just austerity measures in the public sector, but organisations across the country are operating in a culture of austerity with tight fiscal control. So it’s not surprising to read research findings from KPMG  that suggest European hierarchies stifle innovation at work, with just 8 per cent of respondents saying their organisation was good at spotting and nurturing innovation from the bottom up.

Innovation can wane as austerity leads to over-cautiousness, where innovators have to provide justification in triplicate to get ideas through. It should not be reliant on the person at the top; the most successful innovators will enable the process from different parts of the organisation, encouraging ideas through networking and collaboration.

And the most successful entrepreneurs and innovators also have at least one thing in common – they all failed at the beginning, before re-grouping and discovering success.  Failure is definitely an option and employers need to encourage more of it in their workplaces.

So, what can managers and leaders do to enable innovation among their teams? They should:

  • move away from a blame culture and into a more appreciative way of working. Mistakes should be applauded rather than being received critically, which can stifle creativity.
  • encourage more fun in the workplace.  I’m a strong believer that fun and innovation are linked and in today’s austerity climate, the fun has definitely gone from work.  But this isn’t about creating games or fun activities – organised fun, if you like.  Fun should come from people’s work and their interactions with colleagues across the workplace.  If there is a common purpose, and work is challenging and interesting, they will have fun and innovation will flow.
  • challenge the process.  Kouses and Posner’s work, The Leadership Challenge, highlights the importance of leaders who question differently, enabling others to venture ‘out of the box’ and hence encourage innovation. These leaders are openly dismayed at the statement “but this is how it has always been done”

Regardless of what you might think about some of the elements of Danny Boyle’s opening Olympic ceremony, it was a wonderful example of innovation and creativity – a very visual demonstration of what Britain can and does do.  Let’s encourage more of this in our working lives and organisations