Theodore Roosevelt said “The man who makes no mistakes usually does not make anything.”

Theodore Roosevelt; Author: Pach Brothers (photography studio), via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Author: Werner100359 (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

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?”

Edward de Bono; Author: David Davies from Birmingham, UK; via Wikimedia Commons

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.“



  1. Frank says:

    Drucker had it right, where people are scared to try new things. A tragedy of the GFC is the fear of management in trying new things, fear of failure and job loss has probably cost businesses more than the GFC itself. The key to learning is knowing when you have got it wrong, then not covering it up, but quickly taking corrective action, and getting it right the second time. Kind of like getting back on your bike when you fall off. If you’ve never fallen and hurt yourself skiing, you have tried hard enough, same in life and business. Regards, Frank

  2. leshayman says:

    Frank, you got it in one.
    How do you know that you are pushing hard enough if you never test the boundaries, and that means some trial and error must be involved.

  3. Vicky says:

    This really resonates Les, particularly your observations about inductees learning ‘this is the way we do it here’. Its really frustrating when you’ve been hired to drive change because of your successful and innovative approach in a specific area at company X in the past (corp comms in this case), and then discover that company Y culture dictates that you should continue to trot out the trite messaging in the same unwieldy way they’ve been doing it for years (with half the tools, in some cases). How can you possibly engage your audience when you can’t reach half of the people and, if you do, you can’t really excite them because your wings are clipped. Its exasperating when you’ve worked within truly innovative and (calculated) risk taking cultures in the past. It demotivates.

    The companies you describe miss their true potential (growth, revenues, market position, branding etc) AND waste a large proportion of their talent recruitment/retention dollars when people vote with their feet. Fortunately, there are some great companies out there that nurture creativity and will invest in a good business case for something that pushes the boundaries. Sometimes you just have to dig deep to find them.


    • leshayman says:

      Vicky … well put.
      It;s hard to work in an environment that doesn’t welcome change as a part of the DNA. Those that do are the ones that have a chance to survive and prosper, the rest will join the dodo. Les

  4. Bruce Rankin says:

    Hello Les,

    A valuable and thought provoking perspective. When I look back over 45 years in business I certainly made my fair share of mistakes…. and occasionally suffered consequences. Hopefully most were sins of omission versus sins of comission. But they did burn into my brain as valuable lessons for what and what not to do in future similar circumstances. I feel we have very little conception in our youth as to how valuable our experiences in making mistakes will help in making sound decisions in later life.

    At Fujitsu in the 90’s – where managerial authority was quite limited and restrictive – Denis Hughes, the Group Executive to whom I reported, had the Nike slogan on the wall “Just do it!” – and did encourage staff to just do it if it was the right thing to do. In other words a culture where mistakes could occur. I often thought that I would do something I had no right or authority to do, then if challenged, I would simply say I had Denis Hughes’ authority! As it happens I didn’t find a suitable opportunity.

    Later on at EDS I encountered an executive who talked to me about mistakes and three categories of people in the way they responded to mistakes:
    1. The intelligent person learns from past experience and other peoples mistakes. Thus better equipped to avoid them and to make good decisions.
    2. The normal or average person who makes at least one mistake and learns from it.
    3. The unintelligent person who never learns from past mistakes – and continues to make them

    Possibly the categorisation was a little simplistic but another perspective that did made me think.

    Best wishes, Bruce

    • leshayman says:

      Great input Bruce … thanks.

      I always told my direct reports that most times “It was easier to get forgiveness from me than to get approval”, so I like the “Just do it” approach. Love to Jo. Les

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