Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Making new mistakes

Nothing is quite so frustrating as working with a client who claims to want and need innovation, but is paralyzed by indecision or doubt.  Unless, of course, it is a client who has decided that regardless of the new ideas they generate, they will all fail, because of the mistakes they made in the past.

I've worked with a number of clients where teams can generate interesting, relevant, valuable ideas for needs that exist in their customer base.  Rather than proceed to develop these ideas, the team then huddles up to discuss all the reasons the ideas won't work.  And often, the reasons the ideas won't work are nothing more than a litany of mistakes the organization made 'the last time' they tried to innovate. 

Those who ignore the past

It's one thing to be paralyzed by indecision, or to question innovation due to the costs or risks involved.  It's quite another to reject innovation because of failures or mistakes made in a previous attempt, but you'd be amazed and saddened by the amount of discussion that goes on about the previous mistakes.  Many companies and teams are haunted by the fact that previous teams made mistakes that slowed or killed innovative ideas.  What the past has to tell us about the future is completely another matter.

Santayana is credited with saying that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.  What did he say about those who are fixated with history and believe we cannot learn and change?  Whatever happened to all the lip service about becoming a "learning organization".  Can we simply acknowledge the past and then move on?  What does this learning organization learn?  How to avoid failure?

Let's make new mistakes

Perhaps one of the rallying cries for innovation teams should be "let's make new mistakes".  At a minimum, innovators should look to history for cues as to decisions or actions to avoid, in order not to make the same mistakes again.  But they should not become fixated on the past.  Instead, innovators should decide to avoid the mistakes of the past, and realize that they will make a host of new mistakes moving forward.  They'll make mistakes because many firms have never attempted a consistent, sustained innovation program.  Any new activity where the history has been less than successful and the teams are working in unfamiliar territory will lead to mistakes.  That should be OK - we are a learning organization after all, and new mistakes should equate to new learning, new insights and ever better processes and outcomes.

Error-free innovation

Like perpetual motion, life on the Moon, and the calorie free chocolate bar, error-free innovation is a myth.  You will make mistakes when you innovate.  As they say in skiing, if you aren't falling occasionally, you aren't challenging yourself.  The same is true with innovation.  But rather than avoid mistakes, your first goal is to change the attitudes and mindsets about making mistakes, as long as those mistakes lead to ever better outcomes.  Of course we should be able to avoid the mistakes of the past, and should not become morose in our beliefs that we'll simply repeat those mistakes.  If you are living in a Groundhog Day of repeating past mistakes, innovation isn't your key need as a business.

The problem with Six Sigma, Lean, efficiency and so many management philosophies is that they've eliminated experimenting, trying new things, making mistakes in order to learn and grow.  Corporate cultures recoil at even the hint of a less than perfect outcome, and innovation by its very nature is messy and uncertain.  It's simply not possible to innovate in an error free manner, so you can't eliminate mistakes.  What you can do is eliminate the attitudes and perspectives about mistakes, which are ultimately the factor that is holding your team back.

The Innovator's Creed

Perhaps a line in the Innovator's Creed should be:

We promise to understand and attempt to avoid past mistakes, and not be bound by them, and we promise to risk enough to create new mistakes and learn from them, in order to grow and change in ways that improve our company, and deliver products and services that matter to our customers. 

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:29 AM


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