Leading Innovation: Why Executives Should Stimulate People to Make (Better) Mistakes


A while ago I was working with a senior executive team. The team was leading a global division and was facing a complex change that involved four continents. They organized a session together to align as a team on the change strategy, the short-term priorities, and the global execution plan. They asked me to be their facilitator and sounding board. At a certain moment the discussion turned to the question how to stimulate innovation in and across the regions. And at that point something strange happened … the discussion changed, the atmosphere changed, people started to feel uncomfortable.

Apparently there was a split within the team. On the one hand there were team members who got irritated by the inertia they perceived among their colleagues. For them it was clear what kind of innovation was needed and how to get this moving. They felt a lack of courage and boldness in the team. It frustrated them. On the other hand there were team members who got irritated by the thoughtlessness and recklessness of their colleagues. They saw several vital questions still unanswered and believed that without having clear answers and solutions the company would run a huge risk. It made them reluctant, and unwilling to take any hasty decision.

It was not the first time I saw this happening in leadership teams. They were not the only team struggling with this feeling of discomfort as soon as they started to talk about how to create innovation.

In such cases I regularly see power struggles arise within teams. With two possible outcomes: either one side wins the battle, or no one wins and the team ends up in a deadlock. The point is: both outcomes can have a very negative impact on the team and on the business, because very often both sides are wrong!

Two convictions tend to occur more often than we maybe are aware of, and they can seriously hinder leadership teams in creating the needed actions and culture that will drive innovation in their organizations. Both so relevant (especially in today’s business reality) that they deserve special attention:

  • Believing that we have all the answers and solutions

The conviction that we have all the answers and that we know the solution. Unfortunately in today’s business reality the complexity and speed of change do very often not allow leaders to have all the knowledge, experience and information to find the right solutions upfront. We simply do not have all the answers to our questions. Underestimating this, or overestimating our knowledge and answers, can create ‘jumping to actions’ that can seriously damage the company (I know enough, let’s do it).

Successful leaders and leadership teams are aware of what they know and of what they don’t know. They pay special attention to getting to know the real qualities and competences of themselves and of the organization, as well as what knowledge and competence we probably miss to create successful innovation. They focus on creating awareness throughout the organization, and they motivate and engage employees to actively take part in filling the competence gap. They stimulate critical thinking. And they don’t like ‘sticking to how we do things around here because that has always been successful, so we do not need to change it’. They constantly challenge their own and other’s ideas and opinions and always look for ways to learn and grow.

  • Fear of mistakes

The conviction that it is dangerous to undertake any action before we know exactly what we’re talking about. Risk averse leaders create risk averse cultures. Avoiding risks is not a bad thing, it is even a crucial reflex that can challenge the ‘we know it all’ thinkers (see point above). But when it becomes a dominant driver for leaders (often triggered by a search for short-term success or by a fear for the unknown), it can paralyze innovation.

Successful leaders and leadership teams stimulate people to step outside their comfort zone and to explore the unknown step by step. They understand that innovation requires trial and error, but they are aware that trial and error doesn’t mean ‘let’s shoot in the dark’. They stimulate people to look forward, on what is changing around us, on finding the right questions, and on answering these questions based on consistent argumentation. They convince employees that making mistakes is not a bad thing, as long as it brings us closer to the answers to our questions. They distinguish smart mistakes (mistakes that lead to learning and growing) versus stupid mistakes (mistakes that don’t bring any value and are a waste of time). And they don’t like ‘let’s just do it, we must do something, we don’t know and let’s see how it turns out’. They stimulate people to improve the trial and error processes in the organization and to make better mistakes.

When I worked with the executive team on discussing and clarifying these two pitfalls I constantly thought of the presentation by Tim Harford, that I saw a few weeks earlier. His speech inspired me to pay closer attention to the way companies deal with mistakes, turning these into drivers for innovation. His thought-provoking way of explaining why we should make more mistakes instead of less, mixed with powerful storytelling, makes this a valuable video that I warmly recommend to you.

Click picture to play video

What is your experience with creating innovation? How do you stimulate people to make mistakes? Feel free to comment below.

If you liked this article and would like to receive upcoming articles in your mailbox for free, don’t hesitate to register at the top of this page.
Photo: Seth1492/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Aad is an international leadership advisor, change & business transformation expert, leadership team facilitator and executive coach. He works with senior executives and leadership teams of multinational companies on topics like ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, ‘post-merger integration’, and ‘amplifying business performance’. Find out more about Aad and his services. Feel free to contact Aad.

2 Comments on “Leading Innovation: Why Executives Should Stimulate People to Make (Better) Mistakes

  1. Pingback: Weekly leadership reading - LeadBIG | LeadBIG

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: