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?

Ask yourself: 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 prototypes?

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 imaginative teams?

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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