Take some risks to improve innovation

If you don’t occasionally experience failure, you’re not trying hard enough.

That’s what you might call ‘contrary’ advice; it’s certainly not what they taught you at school. Mistakes and failure generated scrawling red marks on your homework, and too many errors could keep you from getting to the next grade.

In the real world, the opposite is true. Even though failure isn’t perceived by many as something to strive for, it’s the only way we advance.

Here’s a real-life, silly and simple example. I’m an avid reader. When I’m at the airport bookstand, the chances are very good that I’ve read everything by my favourite authors on the shelves in front of me. Yet, if I’m going to be sitting in a plane for the next five hours, I must have something to read. What do I do? I chose two numbers at random, say five and seven, and then I count off… five columns to the right, seven books down, and I buy that book… if I haven’t read it already.

Using this method, I’ve bought a lot of awful books (failure) and I’ve found some great authors I’d never heard of before (success), which I would not have read unless I was willing to risk a few dollars on a random choice.

The core idea in my peculiar book-hunting strategy is the notion that it is okay to risk some small failure if the goal is to achieve greater success, in this case, finding a new author. To place this in a business context, think back to the last time you were in a meeting, at the point where the chairperson need to assign new duties. When you raised your hand to accept a task, did you take the one you could handle without any trouble, or one which would stretch your talents?

Most people, myself included most of the time, assume responsibilities only for those tasks we know we’re qualified for. Yet the opportunity for growth doesn’t reside in the shallow end of the pool. If we want to grow, seizing the task at the deep end – the one we know nothing about – is where we’ll find all the fun, and of course, all the risk.

“We can’t afford failure” is the excuse offered by many managers as they hand out tasks only to those capable of delivering results without risk. Each time they do, they choose to lose an opportunity to grow their staff.

“But we can’t afford constant failure on ‘must do’ operational tasks,” is the response once again… and to a limited degree, it’s a good response. Giving every “must do” task to the unqualified is the path to chaos, not progress. On the other hand, never stretching staff abilities leads to stagnation.

The real problem with a “no risk” approach to all “must do” tasks is that our cautious pattern of behaviour can become ingrained, resulting in a culture of risk avoidance.

With “must do” tasks, this isn’t such a bad strategy, but what about those tasks which can come into existence only when we deliberately seek out new, and usually risky, ways of doing things? A culture of risk avoidance prevents us from even thinking about the new, the unfamiliar, and out-of-the-ordinary ways of achieving our goals. It leads to a “leave well enough alone” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, which serves only a single purpose: to ensure that what we did yesterday is exactly what we do tomorrow and next week.

The reality is, we cannot practice innovation without increasing our risk of failure, and the more innovative the idea, the greater the risk. Sadly, most people will reject even the tiny risk associated with randomly selecting a new book to read, never mind the much larger risks involved in finding new solutions to old problems.

de Jager is a change management consultant, seminar leader and speaker; he is also known to bluff at poker if the pot is big enough. You can contact him at pdejager@technobility.com or visit him at www.technobility.com.

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