In his Thinking Faster blog, Jeffrey Phillips recently tackled the issue of being wrong and the fear it causes, and how that can be a significant innovation killer. Most companies are amazingly risk averse, and avoid failures like the plague (or get really good at covering them up!) Interestingly, Jeffrey makes a connection between the fear of failure and Six Sigma, which focuses on conformance to strict statistical norms:
“Now that we’ve instilled the fear of decision making and of being wrong into many mid-level corporate managers, we’ve created a sort of Six Sigma existence for many of them. Too many times outside the norms and you are history. What this creates is a significant grouping around a common statistical norm of thinking. It’s predominate feature? Caution. That’s right – just when we need bold, innovative thinking we’ve put the clamps in place to ensure we’ll stamp out the thinking we need most. We need some Six Sigma thinking – just that the thinking needs to be outside of the norms rather than within the norms.”
The fact is, many failures are important learning experiences for executives. But in most companies, Jeffrey points out, there is no methodology in place to analyze failures, determine what the expectations were and why the attempt failed, and what can be learned from the experience.
Managers need to feel that it’s OK to take risks, to try new things. They need the freedom to learn from their failures, and create something even better out of the ashes. It’s an essential prerequisite to innovation.