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Running scared: does fear of failure halt innovation?

Asher Rickayzen

Innovation and fear of failure

Sometimes, a fear of failure can limit innovation. Asher Rickayzen reveals his own experiences of building innovation into a corporate company

Tell us a little about your experience of innovation.

I’ve got 25 years experience working in large corporates and have spent the last 10/15 years as a member of various boards. We spend time on strategy but often didn’t really create the sort of change that we wanted. It was actually the really small things about the way we interacted with each other, the conversations we weren’t able to have, about the way that we behaved, about the way we responded to emotions. All of those things had more impact.

We pay lots of attention to big things, but it’s actually the small things that are messy, undefinable and difficult to measure that make a massive difference. In terms of innovation I come from the same perspective. For a number of years I was in charge of innovation processes at a large company, and in retrospect it was an interesting take on innovation as it viewed innovation as process you can replicate, even though it’s inherently unpredictable. We chose to make it into a process because it was measurable and we could tell a story about how we were creating innovations. But I strongly believe that innovation is much more a result of culture than of process.

There are certain cultural facets that really help and certain ones that get in the way.

Does organisational size have an impact?

I think there’s a cut off point in an organisation, my gut feel says that when you’re smaller than about 200, it’s much easier to have more informality, less process, more haphazard information, and less silo working. However, I’ve also worked with groups much smaller than that who find it really difficult to have the conversations they want to have with each other, and larger organisations that really fostered the contentious culture that encourages innovation. I think it’s a really interesting question and I think it’s a factor, however I don’t think it’s an excuse.

Things like social media begin to break down organisational size quite dramatically, provided as a culture you are brave enough to let go of some of the things you previously wanted to control.

Is that one of the hardest things for organisations to do?

I think this is the rub. If you have control and you know or can predict what’s going to happen next and it doesn’t happen the way you expect, you often declare that as an error. I think when you apply that to innovation, because it’s often inherently unpredictable, striving for knowing what happens next kills innovation. But not knowing what happens next creates anxiety in all of us. Part of what helps innovation in an organised culture is how to use that anxiety to create a potential breakthrough. Breaking from predictability becomes very important but feels deeply uncomfortable and challenges many of the structures and processes we lead and manage.

Do you think there is a way to help leaders become comfortable with being uncomfortable?

I absolutely do, and I think that starts from a place of them examining their own inner beliefs about anxiety and their own inner beliefs about control. That was my journey personally. I’m an engineer by training, so if you want a discipline that’s based on predictability, it’s engineering. I moved from there into IT, then project/programme management and change, and finally into strategy change and organisational development. I strove for years to build models and forecasts and ways to structure what we did so our strategic objectives tie up with our personal objectives and it would all be very neat and tidy. Out of the corner of my eye what I was preventing happening and what was really happening around the edges where a lot of value was being created but which didn’t fit with the kind of models I had implemented.
The very strong image I had in my mind was about when I ski. I feel like I’m absolutely at my best when I’m not sure when I’m falling or skiing, that idea of being right on the borderline between competence and incompetence. I could be very competent and safe, which got results and my colleagues liked me for that, but it missed a huge amount of possibility – the possibility of falling.

Falling and failure – do you think that’s hard for leaders in particular?

The person who sums it up best for me was a paralympian, a swimmer called Mark Woods. He talked about the fact that ‘of course, you remember me for the gold medal but what you don’t remember is the 1,001 times I lost races which has all been part of me being able to win races.’ That is such a different outlook from many of the things we hold true about leaders in organisations, such as you’re only as good as your last success – but I’m more interested in what you’ve learnt from your last failure. I would distinguish between repeating the same failures, or if is there some form of learning going on where you’re taking a deeper look both at yourself and those around you so that you can develop further and produce better results in the future. That whole area of failure and rule breaking is fascinating to me.

Can organisations encourage that attitude in staff?

I met the chief strategist at IBM when it was going though a massive turnaround and he did a lot of work at the time with their CEO. He used to convene meetings and start the meeting by saying ‘the worse we do in here, the better we do out there’. He meant that if organisations can have conversations where there are no holds barred and where they really look into what’s going on, don’t pretend to themselves, where they embrace what’s gone wrong as well as what’s gone right, then they’ve got the chance to be better. If organisations can’t do that then they get stuck because they’re unable to face what’s really happening.

This doesn’t mean there are no consequences for bad ideas or mistakes, because sometimes there have to be consequences, but there’s something very different about being able to understand consequences and take a step back and be dispassionate about what’s going on. When we get very fearful and anxious about failure and where we feel we have to cover it up or disguise it, there we cover up the ability to learn as well and without learning there can’t be any innovation.

Asher Rickayzen is a consultant and senior advisor with Relume.


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