WE NEED TO MAKE MORE MISTAKES
April 25, 2011 6 Comments
Theodore Roosevelt said “The man who makes no mistakes usually does not make anything.”
I believe that we are not making enough mistakes and as a result are holding back creativity and innovation, particularly in large companies.
As children we tend to learn by making mistakes. When we first learn to ride a bike, it is a very rare child that climbs on the first time and pedals off into the sunset. We learn that if we pedal too slowly we will fall, if we lean too much to the left or too far to the right we also fall and so on, and it is with some trial and error that we all become bike riders. It is very rare that parents start off by telling their children that bike riding is complex and difficult to do and that no mistakes are allowed on the way to proficiency.
I therefore find it strange that many companies have forgotten that this trial and error is at the heart of the learning process that drives competence at a task or skill.
Many companies have such strong and protected cultures that induction programmes tend to result in “This is the way we do things here (acceptable behaviour) and woe-betide anyone who does anything else”, so thatmany inductees come away with the belief that it would be foolish and career limiting to try something new or do something differently. I have always believed that if we always do what we have always done, we will always get what we already have, and innovation and creativity will not flourish.
More critically, this is not only true for junior employees.
Recent studies by Cornell University have shown that whilst most CEOs say that creativity is critical for senior leadership, the perceptions that are generally held are that there is a clash between “creative people” and “effective leaders”. Creative people are seen as risky and unpredictable whereas leaders are meant to remove uncertainty and uphold the norms of the group.
As Edward de Bono points out “The problem leaders have with creativity is two-fold. If you yourself have done very well with the existing modes of thinking, why should you encourage others to learn further modes? But if you live in innocent ignorance of the other modes of thinking, how can you be anything but complacent about thinking?”
What this means is that managers get promoted because they have shown that they have the ability to protect the status quo, but when they get to senior leadership roles they are now expected to show creativity and innovation, skills that they did not learn along the way, and that they have mistrusted in their climb up the corporate ladder. Yet in turbulent times, one key to survival is the ability to take a different view of situations, barriers, opportunities, competition etc. in ways that relate to turbulence and unpredictability in the market, something few CEOs can do.
In a study of 1500 Global CEOs carried out by IBM in 2010,to successfully navigate an increasingly complex world, creativity was seen as being even more critical than rigor, management discipline, integrity and vision, and this alone may explain why most of the CEOs surveyed doubted their abilities to lead their businesses through these complex times.
To be creative means taking calculated risks, and means not being scared of regularly being wrong and tripping up. I have always believed that if you try 10 new things and 7 of them work well, you are generally well ahead of your competition. In the same way that we encourage our children to try new things and not worry if they fall over or make mistakes along the way, for any company to be successful it is critical that we encourage this same sense of adventure and experimentation in our employees, or we will not build organisations and leadership that have the creativity to survive the complexity, uncertainty and volatility that exist today and that will continue to grow in the future.
Too many companies seem to believe that creativity and innovation are driven by genius. That if we hire the brightest and best that can be found, they will come up with all that is new and that is needed for success. Peter Drucker has always pointed out that having genius is a good starting point, but that it is not enough (see post on Innovation posted October 4, 2010.). To drive innovation and creativity you need to build an environment where people are not scared to try new things, to voice divergent opinions, and are not scared to make honest mistakes on their road to learning and success.
We are just not making enough mistakes as adult business people, and until we are prepared to take a similar approach to learning as we did when we were children, and are prepared to build companies where mistakes are seen as part of the learning process on the path to competence, we will not drive creativity and innovation well enough for business survival and success.
As Hugh White (1773-1840) US Politician said “When you make a mistake, don’t look back at it for long. Take the reason of the thing into your mind and then look forward. Mistakes are lessons of wisdom. The past cannot be changed. The future is yet in your power.“