“The way to avoid mistakes is to gain experience. The way to gain experience is to make mistakes.” — Laurence J. Peter, Peter’s Competence Principle

  • If your team or organization doesn’t have a disciplined management system and supportive leadership culture, innovation and organizational learning is just wishful thinking.
  • The only place you should try “doing it right the first time” is with established, repetitive processes. Beyond that, this quality improvement clichй can kill innovation. A major study from the American Quality Foundation concluded, “We don’t do things right the first time. Trial and error — making mistakes, experiencing failures, and learning from them — is how we improve. We need mistakes in order to learn; they are an integral part of how we get better. Urging Americans to ‘do it right the first time’ means asking them to omit a step in their improvement process. It won’t work…if Rocky had done it right the first time, there would have been no movie.”
  • I received a seminar brochure advertising an “innovation lab” and a “change workshop.” These were “designed for mid-level management and professional employees with responsibilities for change and innovation.” Everybody in the company is responsible for personal, team, and organization change and innovation. We can’t separate these responsibilities any more then we can separate quality improvement, customer service, or human resource management. Developing a staff group of “innocrats” is a sure-fire way to kill innovation and increase resistance to change.
  • How many experiments, pilots, and clumsy tries are currently underway in your organization? Depending on your Law of Averages, you will need many times more projects and pilots in the exploration and experimentation stage than you are hoping to eventually develop.
  • Here’s some very sound advice Peter Drucker has been giving us for at least three decades now, “Every three years or so, the enterprise must put every single product, process, technology, market, distributive channel, not to mention every single staff activity on trial for its life. It must ask: Would we now go into this product, this market, this distributive channel, and this technology today? If the answer is, ‘No’, one does not respond with, ‘Let’s make another study’. One asks, ‘What do we have to do to stop wasting resources on this product, this market, this distributive channel, this staff activity?'”
  • It’s the very rare company that can make their organization more innovative by acquiring an entrepreneurial company. Within a few years, the acquired company’s culture has been “tamed” down to the same level of mediocre innovation as the purchasing organization. Innovation happens through transforming management systems/processes and leadership culture.
  • Establish a regular review process for yourself, your team, and your organization to reflect on the reasons for both your failures and successes. This is a fundamental and critical component of learning. Based on the input of everyone involved, some organizations produce substantial documents or booklets on “lessons learned” following a major new product, service, or business launch.
  • Set up an Innovation Slush Fund to provide seed money to champions and skunk works. Couple it with allowing your key operations people ten to fifteen percent of their time to work on projects that they feel have some high innovation potential. The only condition of getting the money or time is a periodic report (preferably voice mail, e-mail, videotape, or group presentation rather than a bureaucratic memo) on the key lessons learned. Circulate these reports widely.
  • Set up an internal “best practices and good tries” system, clearinghouse, or network to continuously spread the learning about what works and doesn’t work across your organization. Many organizations are setting up electronic databases, intranet sites, learning and improvement coordination processes, active networks, and the like.
  • Put on regular product and service fairs that allow all areas of your company to show off their results, explain what they’re working on, and swap ideas. A giant two-day fair at a large house-wares manufacturer resulted in 2,000 ideas for new products.
  • Time to pull out that leadership mirror again. Do you have an experimenting mindset? What are some recent examples of personal routines or habits you changed?
  • A major factor in our team or organization’s level of innovation is our own rate of personal learning. We can’t build a team or organization into something different from us. Our personal rate of change, innovation, and learning sets the pace for everyone else.