Driving Innovation by Making Mistakes

A.T. Gimbel shares how to overcome the culture challenge of feeling unable to make mistakes.

A.T. Gimbel
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December 17, 2019

Mistakes aren’t scary, they’re key to innovation

I have recently met with several different people at larger organizations who have spoken about the challenges of being “innovative.” They share some common struggles, but one of the key issues is the culture challenge of feeling unable to make mistakes. Here are three areas where startup lessons could be applied to support overcoming those hurdles to innovation.

There will be “failures”

Part of the startup mentality is to fail fast. You try something, you learn, you iterate, you try again. That strategy can be much harder in the corporate world where there are quarterly earnings to hit and a much larger organization to align around a specific initiative (which takes much more time and resources). There can also be cultures that pass judgement on mistakes, as those “failures” are not rewarded and potentially punished. Any true innovation usually requires several pivots or failings; what is most important is how you quickly learn from those tests, iterate into the next path, and keep moving forward. Innovation does not just happen from one moment of brilliance in a conference room. Instead, it comes from lots of hard work and failures until you iterate into finding a critical solution to a must-have problem.

Ensure support and buy-in from the top

Another startups lesson is the ability to quickly make decisions and align the team. That is naturally much easier when the entire team is in one small office, but is still necessary even in a larger organization. Keeping the team aligned and supported from the top is critical. Change is difficult and many organizations struggle with it. To effectively manage change, you need clear support from the executive team that not only pushes the organization to support change, but encourages the failures and learnings mentioned above. It’s also helpful to start working with specific business leaders who promote and desire change, as I have found they are much more receptive and supportive of trying new ideas. It also makes the initiatives more tangible to have business leaders that support solving real problems in their business units versus just innovating solely within the walls of an innovation team.

Gain quick wins and celebrate successes

If being innovative requires lots of mistakes, how do you define success in innovation? Work on real problems with real business unit leaders to start small and celebrate successes to build momentum. Reaffirming the quick wins and how those were developed by learning from testing different options reinforces the mentality that it is okay to make mistakes. Absent these quick wins and definitions of success, an innovation group runs the risk of being shut down or having teams disbanded as budgets tighten and there is minimal quantifiable progress.

Innovation is hard in general, but can be especially difficult if the organization is not setup for success. Applying lessons learned from startups around encouraging mistakes, getting the culture right from the top, and driving quick wins can make a big difference in achieving progress versus just lip service to playing innovation.

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