In the years that I have been an IT manager, there’s honestly something that most people who work for me need to learn, and even some of my former colleges and bosses need to learn to accept. Don’t be afraid to fail or let your employees make mistakes. I’ve seen many young smart talented people come into the job world and be afraid to make beneficial changes because they’ll get in trouble. Some of the best, and most lasting lessons I’ve learned during my career, have been screw ups on my part. There are lessons, I still carry with my, from my first year of working in technology, of something I messed up.
Think of it as a failure-free climate is an innovation-free zone, because people will only do the status quo to avoid trouble. Part of me thinks of the Edison quote about the failures he had while trying to invent the light bulb,, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”, every innovation in human evolution has been preceded by failures, yet in our current society we’re focused only on successes. In my career and talking with other colleagues, I’ve seen many organizations punish failure and search out and shame the individual, not realizing that they are strangling innovation.
If your organization celebrates innovation, you need to start cultivating your team in a culture where failure is not only tolerated but celebrated as a step on the path to success. It’s easier when your whole organization is together in this process, but even on a smaller level this can work. In some positions that I’ve had employees under me, that made mistakes, and the organization wasn’t failure positive, I acted as a shield for those under me, so that I could cultivate the innovation mentality. We strive not to fail, but sometimes you do. This isn’t saying that all mistakes are to be tolerated, but if done in trying to make things better, should be weighted.
The worse corporate cultures out there (read as those that punish failure), are the corporate cultures that tend to be plagued by inaction. No one is willing to “stick their neck out” and make a decision to add or change anything, and instead hope someone else will be willing to take that risk. The most successful people in these organizations will be the people who are the most staunch defenders of the status quo.
In order to take a step in fixing this, I would suggest you consciously try, and to allow yourself to fail once per quarter. It may sound like a joke, but giving yourself a cushion to try and maybe to fail in a work setting once every few months can be extremely powerful. With permission to make an attempt, you might attempt to solve that complex technical problem and, even if unsuccessful, learn something that can be applied to similar problems.
If you lead a team, business unit, or company, giving yourself and your team permission to fail may result in a breakthrough innovation that changes the direction of your organization. While there’s a higher likelihood you’ll learn one more of the thousand ways not to succeed, you’ll still be growing stronger.