Innovation & The Value of a Near-Miss

How do you feel about near-misses? Ok for games of horseshoes and hand grenades? (Cute—snarky, but cute.) In part two of this discussion about the cost of disengaged employees in a down economy let’s discuss a simple principle of employee motivation applicable to our present economic environment, where so much emphasis is placed on innovation:

Without permission to fail employees will never feel secure enough to be truly innovative.

SONY DSCRadical assertion? In the last post (see below) we discussed the fact that employees are the only ones who can innovate us out of this economic stupor. But by perpetuating a risk averse corporate culture—of fear rather than trust and transparency—companies are cutting themselves off from the clever and creative employee ideas that will help them survive.

Come again? You say corporate culture should reflect a willingness to embrace innovations that fail as well as creative employee endeavors (to grow the business) that result in success?

In a word, yes. A risk-averse culture will never be the fertile soil for creative ideas; an atmosphere of guarded interpersonal interaction can never produce real innovation. The tragedy here is that workers are the untapped resource with winning ideas that are never brought up because of the repercussions of failure. Yes, mind the business tactics and make sure everything rolls up to something of strategic importance to the enterprise, Ms. & Mr. senior leaders; but without an ear to the ground—without actively listening to the pipeline of ideas from frontline employees (via two-way communication channels)—corporate strategy will fail.

Calculating the Value of a Near-Miss

The outcome just shy of success is called a near-miss. You’re not alright with a near-miss? Glad Einstein didn’t think like you, or he would have given up after the umpteenth failure to invent the light bulb. Edison spent several years with more than 100 substances, all of them failures, before he found the right filament for the first electric light bulb.

An interview with Jeff Katzenberg of DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. in a New York Times Leadership Corner feature called The Benefit of a Boot Out The Door underscores this argument:

“In my business (computer-animated feature films) if you stop being creative and innovative, you’re finished,” Katzenberg says.

Rhetorical aside: Are there really businesses out there where this isn’t true? How many blue chip and legacy-based organizations are trying to innovate in order to survive right now?

Katzenberg concludes: “In the world we live in today, the single most important thing is making people feel secure. It’s a very different era today than it was five or 10 years ago, even two years ago. We’re in a moment in time when people don’t want to take risks, they don’t want to gamble. In my business, you must. If you stop being creative and innovative, you’re finished.”

Occasional Failure & The Cost of Innovation

“In order to strike a balance between organizations who are unwilling to take risks but who must innovate to survive, “the equation works quite simply like this: In order to succeed at the high-end of the movie business, you must be original and unique. Now if you were putting an equation up on the white board and you wrote “original + unique = what?” Then the answer would have to be “risky.” And if you said, “risky = what?” The answer would be “some failure.” It has to, by definition, just sort of in the most fundamental way.”

“If you don’t make failure acceptable, you can’t have original and unique. So in a world today that punishes any of us for failure, it’s the single most important quality that I think we work so hard to provide for our 2,000 employees, the understanding that they are expected to take risks.”

Are we on to something here? What say you?

Photo credit:  John Morris Photostream, licensed by Creative Commons.

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In Category: Corporate Culture, Human Resources, Public Relations, Sharepoint, Social Media, Workforce Engagement

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Dom Crincoli

Show 2 Comments
  • Chris S. Cornell November 21, 2009, 12:09 am Link

    Couldn’t agree with you more. You’re correct that innovation is extremely important, particularly in times like these. Unfortunately, in most organizations today, many people are spending all their energy trying to avoid doing anything that could be construed as a mistake or failure. Better to “try and fail” than to “not try and not fail”.

    Excellent blog, Dom. I’ll check back often.

  • Dom November 24, 2009, 1:51 pm Link

    Thanks Chris. Nice to know that the message resonated with you. Glad you enjoyed it. Dom