“True organizational innovation is impossible without failure.” -Ron Ashkenas Harvard Business Review
If we were scanning the current landscape of organizational leadership we would be apt to say that two of the hottest buzzwords in the business right now are innovation and failure. Both of these terms seem to be in vogue as we consider the issues surrounding growth and change processes in our organizations.
However, don’t let their popularity fool you…they are significant concepts that we must consider as we wrangle with modern day leadership. Just understand that their overuse can sometimes convolute the waters of their meaning and importance. In most instances, when we consider these two terms from a leadership standpoint, they exist together as by-products of each other. When the aspiration is towards innovation, the fall-out is often failure…whereas, the repercussion of failure can often spark innovation. They can serve as drivers of each other in a spiraling cycle of progression and growth.
So if we are to truly lead change, we must acknowledge that innovation and failure are real concepts that will create real disruption for any change effort. And if we are to take advantage of what each term represents, then we have to recognize that they both arrive with a window…a window of opportunity.
What resides in that window, in regards to failure is an opportunity for greater learning and growth…and yet, we often fail to acknowledge that the learning and growth is dependent upon an action. Failure, in and of itself, will not necessarily create learning. It is how we react and attend to the failure (the action) that creates the opportunity for learning. Wait to long and the window of opportunity closes, and so does the learning.
It is at that moment, when failure has occurred, that leaders want to swoop in with advice and solutions on how solve the problem. On how to fix the failure. In other words, they want to save the day. Whereas, Peter Bregman of Harvard Business Review would advise leaders to rethink that course of action. Instead…“When someone has made a mistake or slipped up in some way, just listen to them. Don’t interrupt, don’t offer advice, don’t say that it will be all right. And don’t be afraid of silence. Just listen.”
According the Bregman, the act of listening provides the foundation for allowing empathy to enter into the process. “There needs to be empathy. Empathy communicates trust. And people perform best when they feel trusted.” Which is what all leaders should seek. To create influence that allows those we lead and serve to perform at their best. And that requires trust. As Bregman adds…“But the learning – the avoidance of future failures – only comes once they feel okay about themselves after failing. And that feeling comes from empathy.”
That is not to say that timely and authentic feedback are not necessary. Rather, when we begin by opening the channels of communication, when we learn to listen, we create an environment of trust and empathy. It is in this environment that the foundation is laid for learning and growth to occur. And once people feel safe to learn and grow from failure, then innovation can flourish as well. It takes one to create the other…and very often in reverse.