Encourage mistakes Lightbulb with wings

Empowering employees and driving innovation through accepting “success or failure” as a total learning experience.

While employees work to overcome their own internal fears of mistakes and failures, organizations who encourage this risk-taking behavior reap innovative and financial benefits. Pushing the limits and embracing “big picture” ideas are our future and organizations who engrain this in their culture are more likely to stay on top. Follow these three steps to tee up your organization for a positive mistake-making safe haven.

Introduce the Openness + Honesty = Trust equation.

Teaching teams to speak up when efforts aren’t successful is crucial. Product recalls are costly and speaking up before a disaster hits is huge. Creating a culture where it’s okay to say “we messed up” or “this didn’t work” is imperative to the reputation of a company. As long as the team can say, “We think this is why it didn’t work. This is what we learned. And, this is what we’ll do to fix it or this is what we’ll do next time” stops potential issues in their tracks. The underlying thread to this style of communication is trust. Creating an environment where employees trust their leaders’ emotional intelligence to positively handle the situation curbs future problems both large and small.

A culture that embraced the learning and wisdom that comes from mistakes and setbacks.

In 2006, Alan Mulally, Ford Motor Company’s CEO did just that. In a roundtable meeting, a Ford executive leader raised the red light for his department to bring an issue to the surface. In saving Ford, Mulally had implemented a red, yellow, and green color-coding system for leaders to report on their business plan charts in weekly meetings. Mulally started clapping. Why? Because open, honest communication about the status of inclement projects had long been seen as a sign of weakness. Leaders had been afraid to speak up. Mulally knew he needed to get to the bottom of what was wrong with Ford. He needed the company’s leaders to bring issues to the surface and the leader who raised the red light received an accolade that would set the tone for the right kind of company culture: a culture that embraced the learning and wisdom that comes from mistakes and setbacks.

Add the core value of “permission to make mistakes”

Whether your company’s core values are set or yet to be determined, integrating the core value of “permission to make mistakes” will reap benefits from now into the future. Eliminating the fear of failure from the workplace allows employees to work with a calm, clear, and collected mindset. More importantly, this permission embraces experimentation, innovation, and overall creativity. Oh, but there’s one added benefit: engagement. Employees who are highly engaged in their work are more productive and more likely to stick around. Well, I guess that makes three added benefits, but the more the merrier.

One of the biggest brands in the world is embracing mistakes. Coca Cola’s new CEO, James Quincy states, “If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not trying hard enough.” Although Quincy is not encouraging big changes to Coke products, he is embracing experimentation and allowing mistakes through its smaller brands. “If you’re trying to do something different on Coke, failure is big and emblematic,” says Quincy. This makes sense. Coke has worked many years to build out its brand and continues to test in smaller markets. In regards to testing Coke’s other brands, “I’m not sure fear of failure is entirely wrong, except when it leads to inaction,” states Quincy. Ah, inaction. Quincy recognizes that there is a time and place for fear of failure, but when this fear leads to inaction or lack of innovation, embracing mistakes is crucial. The lesson? Embrace mistakes and changes, but assess the situation and make educated decisions based on testing.

Nonetheless, leaders of the world’s most renowned brands are turning the terms “mistake” and “failure” on their heads and re-evaluating.

Encourage your leaders to encourage mistakes

The right kind of leader is key to cultivating an open, trusting, permission-to-make-mistakes culture. The digital transformation has created a diverse mix of leaders based on the needs of the organization where age-range, skills, and many other characteristics vary. Different schools of belief exist among these leaders, so how do you convince all types of leaders that permission to make mistakes is imperative to success?

  1. Consider quarterly leadership sessions that offer best practices in leadership including embracing mistakes and failures.
  2. Use art and design as a reminder. Highlight core values on the walls of your lobby, cafeteria, or offices. Make sure your leaders always remember the core values set forth by the organization. After all, company culture trickles down from the top.
  3. Hire leaders who are high in emotional intelligence. Strong, negative reactions to mistakes kill the trust needed between leaders and teams. If a leader reacts adversely to a mistake, an employee may be far less likely to bring their great idea to the forefront. Some ideas will succeed; others will fail. Regardless, encourage leaders to keep a calm and cool demeanor at all times.

Creating trust between leaders and teams, redefining core values, and encouraging leaders to encourage mistakes are three great ways to empower employees and create an innovative culture. How does your organization embrace mistakes and what steps do you take to get the most from a failed experience? Share your insights in the comments below.