By BRIAN BABCOCK
First published in the Globe and Mail, Mar. 7, 2003
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Very few companies
rush headlong into innovations or new ventures. The more common situation
is that companies are frozen in the fear of failure and can't get good
ideas off the ground.
But if you're not
a problem for your competition with "first mover" innovations,
then you have a problem.
So how do you know
if your company is frozen in fear?
When competitors have a breakthrough, does your team immediately call
a meeting and engage in contentious debate and complicated analysis?
Or do you disrupt the debate and forge ahead with your own low-cost
And from a broader
perspective, can you invent fearless teams that anticipate success rather
than failure? In other words, do you become a problem for your rivals?
As in so many corporate
issues, the answers can be found by looking in the mirror. Are you moving
on a trial product, a trial communication program, a trial anything?
Is it a fast-moving, low-cost prototype? After the trial, does your
team fix it and develop it?
In other words,
when you look at yourself, do you see someone who promotes innovative
ideas and encourages imaginative teams? If not, why not?
As part and parcel
of this process, it's important to recognize your seminal moments. That
is, to identify and develop those products and processes with the potential
for long-term sustainable growth.
But the first and
most crucial step is to take action on great new ideas. Stop the corporate
debate and do your low-cost trials.
The second step
is to develop a respect for the innovative purpose in people's work.
We can and must encourage trials that fail and celebrate those that
succeed. One great advance is frequently preceded by many failures.
As Samuel Beckett put it: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
By using positive
reinforcement, teams gain confidence and individuals feel safe to take
risks. I know of a leader who told his employees that the only unsatisfactory
measurement for the past year was that they had not made enough mistakes.
Can you take this bold step? Can you encourage personal and corporate
growth created by learning from mistakes?
You'll want to remember
that supervisors must be like-minded if fear is to succumb to the novel
inquiry of teams. Your supportive dictum will need to permeate every
layer of your enterprise.
How will you
know whether you allow this kind of latitude for innovation?
If teams occasionally
break from protocol -- if they don't get prior approval for every trial
project -- these moments can be a positive signal that they've developed
a sense of freedom to explore new ideas.
You also have to
carefully assess who deserves the rewards of success. If you want to
encourage learning by failure, you'll need to reward the accomplishments
of square-shooting teams, those judged to have authentic and creative
ideas. Alternatively, you can't approve the actions of those with suspicious
or unreliable ideas. When you build your teams' trust in your fairness,
it knocks down another barrier to the abatement of fear.
The last step is
to keep your company bureaucracy off the backs of innovators.
Now let's be clear, company bureaucrats are extremely valuable people
-- but managers sometimes place too much power in their hands. The problem
is, some managers create unreasonable expectations for reports in order
to assuage their anxiety about control. You don't want that.
So be sure your
bureaucracy is lean. Control is important but balance in control and
innovative process is vital to the enterprise's success. The paradox
for you as a leader is this: By giving up some traditional kinds
of control, you gain control of innovation.
In the final analysis,
when you look at your reflection in the mirror, do you see someone who
is a fierce champion of innovative ideas and a dependable promoter of
Here are some
questions that will focus your attention on the process:
Do you do fast-paced,
low-cost trials with great innovative ideas?
Do you see simple
mistakes as another way to learn? If not, why not? Does your team agree
that you see mistakes as learning tools? Have you asked them?
Do your supervisors
support listening and creativity? To measure this, use "blind surveys"
and expect feedback.
Do your employees
feel secure in their jobs to the point where they occasionally avoid
protocol in order to generate better ideas?
Do you reward honest
effort in innovation? Is there variety -- from simple praise to formal
systems of payment?
Is your bureaucracy
a participant in creative solutions or do they make unnecessary requests
for information? Expect bureaucracies to participate, create and innovate,
at least within the sphere of their influence.
With these questions
in mind, you'll master the distinctions of balance in the innovative
process and thaw the icy grip of fear. You'll learn to learn more quickly
than your competitors and even the smallest process improvement can
add to your competitive advantage.
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