Great Leaders Drive Innovation By Making It Safe For Others To Talk About Mistakes

In established organizations, what can leaders do to drive innovation? How can leaders support innovation at work? What’s one tactic that will unleash it? Let me tell you…

I’ve yet to meet an innovative company where people are punished, ridiculed, shamed, and fired for making mistakes. The problem with most organizations that want to innovate is how little patience they have for making mistakes. It’s pretty much you make a mistake and you’re tagged as incompetent, next mistake and you’re out the door; this is not an innovation friendly environment.

Innovation is the opposite of stable. Any progress is made through constant friction. In an innovation culture what’s valued above all is a growth mindset, which is all about learning and evolving. Thus, a culture of innovation is a culture of learning.

Innovation is inseparable from failure; which means making mistakes and being wrong. Tensions will rise, disagreements and conflict are a given. Cultures where innovation flourishes embrace mistakes, uncomfortable conversations, and navigate disagreements because they understand that their strength comes from how they navigate problems together.

How do they do that? One way is to make it safe to both make and talk about mistakes.

Make it Safe To Make And Talk About Mistakes

When we make mistakes, our instinct is to conceal, ignore, and move on. Strong cultures flip the dynamic. They seek to highlight and remember their mistakes and use them as navigational markers, focusing on the clarity of the mistakes created and the new paths they send people on.

Voting rights advocate, Stacey Abrams, has three rules for making it safe to make mistakes:

  1. Give people stretch assignments;
  2. Let them know you expects some mistakes;
  3. Create space to learn from those mistakes.

What it comes down to is you want people to know they won’t be punished, shamed, or ignored if they don’t have an answer to something. You want them to not have to worry about being wrong; because being wrong is actually good when you learn from it. It’s about giving your team members permission to learn and grow. People will fail, that’s part of the expectation; because you want them to learn. You want them to grow, and you’re giving them the opportunities to do so.

As I said before, a culture of innovation is a culture of learning. Thus, the innovation equation is as follows: Reducing Errors + Increasing Insights = Innovation

Making mistakes, specifically new ones, is the key to increasing insights. With that said, as a leader, you have to create an environment where you make it safe to fail. Mistakes are a given. You’re not rewarding the act of making mistakes, but the learning that comes from making them; specifically, the new insights.

Bottom line: Leaders that value innovation make it safe to fail by creating an environment where it’s safe to both make and talk about mistakes, where failure isn’t punished; rather it’s expected and celebrated when it leads to learning.