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Henley Leadership Group Blog

Embrace Your Mistakes (Yes, Even The Big Ones!)

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Most of us are intrigued by the idea of innovation, which is the art of thinking, listening and learning through experimentation. But most of us have no formal training in it. Odds are, you also didn’t learn how to embrace mistakes as “opportunities to learn.” 

“Innovation is all about learning from doing,” says Tim Brown, Chair of famed design consultancy IDEO. “That’s how we evolve to the best solution.”

Of course, that means you have to actually do something in order to get to there. What often holds us back from taking action is fear  fear that it will be the “wrong” decision, fear that you don’t have enough information, fear of repercussions if you screw it up. But here’s the thing: Leaders in companies undergoing transformation (and what company isn’t right now?) can’t afford to take weeks to make an important decision.

I consider innovative action to be a critical skill for leaders today. It’s the ability to discern the best course of action through experimenting and learning as you go, which naturally includes surprises. 

If that feels uncomfortable to you, try thinking about action-taking as a path to learning. You experiment, you try a part of the solution, and you learn from the doing. This informs the next set of actions to take. Don’t wait until you know all of the steps, 1 through 100, to get started. You only have to know the steps that are right in front of you. Then you can discern the next steps or actions to take. 

This doesn’t mean you have to abandon data, research, and other information necessary to make key decisions, especially when there’s a lot at stake. However, given the vast amount of data available to all of us these days, be careful not to get stuck in analysis paralysis. With the world moving fast and decisions needing to be made faster, the question you must ask is when is time to stop reviewing the data and start taking action. 

Building competence in innovative action helps you reduce bureaucracy and hesitation. It also creates an environment of curiosity and learning, of trying on new ideas and abandoning those that aren’t working after reasonable effort. 

Leaders who embrace innovative action give team members permission to do the same  to make rapid decisions without being afraid of missteps. The result is that decisions and actions happen much faster. This creates strong, collective momentum. 

Building Your Innovative Action Capability

The phenomenal rise of the Swedish online music streaming company Spotify is a testimony to the power of leaders who excel at innovative action. The company launched in 2006 in the crowded space of online music and has since become a $7.8 billion business. It brought a monthly subscription model that has attracted 155 million premium subscribers. 

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has said that maintaining a culture of constant experimentation is crucial at the company. “We aim to make mistakes faster than anyone else,” he says. He knows that it’s up to Spotify executives to continue to demonstrate innovative action and encourage the trait in those below them. That’s why company slogans such as “minimum viable bureaucracy” and “put the right people together and trust them” permeate the culture. 

How can you build the capability of innovative action in your team and cascade it throughout the organization? Start with an internal initiative and work together with your team to run it in an entirely new way. In addition to the traditional prerequisite of being “on strategy” (i.e., it will help the company further improve its business model and direction), the initiative needs to demonstrate:

·      the importance of highly creative experimentation and ideas from all levels

·      the ability to admit to failure quickly

·      the capacity to learn from failures and move on

Experimenting and innovating can be fun. I challenge you to start thinking way outside the box you’ve been in.

Previously published on Forbes