Why innovation is wishful thinking for most organisations
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide

One thing I have always loved is the Engineers Without Border’s annual failure report. It arose from the intention to share what has NOT worked for NGOs, so that others can learn from their mistakes – like uncounted repurposed cooking stoves, toilets, and all kinds of high tech equipment. EWB share failure in the spirit of empowering engineers to learn from each other. Instead of endlessly replicating past failures on the other side of the world, they can study what went wrong, and iterate.

Fail early and often to succeed sooner is a Design Thinking principle.

The rationale behind it is that we cannot create something really new, if we don’t allow ourselves to fail. Instead, we have to stick to what’s already been tried and tested elsewhere. Of course, we can still copy, and we can always focus on incremental innovation, which has its merits. But breakthrough innovation is impossible from a mindset that doesn’t allow for failure.

We cannot innovate without embracing the unpredictable.

European companies have a bed reputation when it comes to innovation when compared to US companies. What’s in the way of embracing innovation? Of the common fears which prevent innovation from happening, the fear of failure is the most prevalent. Yet our present time of rapid change demands innovation – not just to thrive, but simply to survive as a company.

The need for innovation has led to a widespread paradox.

One the one hand, organisations publicise innovation strategies and invite everyone to be “more innovative”. Many have even established Design Thinking groups. You can hardly walk into a company’s lobby today without seeing a shiny movie on innovation, and very compelling ones amongst them!

On the other hand, failing is a career killer in those very same companies. It’s the company’s cultural DNA, an unspoken rule that everyone is aware of. It has ambitious leaders avoid experiments. What’s more, it has them fall short of their role of empowering their people to be innovative. And those Design Thinking groups end up siloed. To be sure, cautious leaders behave rationally. They simply respond to the double bind:

Everyone is encouraged to be innovative, and everyone knows that a failed innovation is a career breaker.

Therefore, planning one’s own successful career prevents the ambitious from responding to the company’s need for innovation. Where fear to fail reigns, innovation cannot live. Ergo, people just do it “the way it’s always been done here.” How to break the pattern?
Empowering people to look for radically new solutions and business models, requires openly addressing the cultural DNA. Leaders need to not just actively encourage, but also to reward risking failure. You’d be surprised how many creative people in your ranks will come to the fore, when you make failure in pursuit of innovation publicly ok. Why not publish annual failure reports and help employees to build on past failures? That might get the enterprising, innovative spirits activated like nothing else.

Whilst they might be closeted, the creative disrupters are amongst you.

Their innovations might not just solve your current problems, but address future challenges you cannot even see yet.

For leadership coaching and developement, get in touch

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