How do you feel about near-misses? Ok for horseshoes and hand grenades, eh? Well, in part two of our discussion about the cost of failing to keep employees engaged during an economic downturn—the cost of creating corporate zombies—I’d like to discuss one simple premise of employee motivation that applies to our present environment where so much emphasis and demand is placed on innovation:

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

Does this sound like a radical 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 corporate culture typified by risk-aversion rather than transparency, of fear rather than trust, companies are cutting themselves off from the very clever and creative employee ideas that will help them survive.

zombie mintsCome again? You say corporate culture should reflect a propensity and willingness to embrace innovations that fail as well as those creative employee endeavors  (to grow the business) that result in success? Are you tipsy or something?

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. A risk-averse culture will never be the fertile soil for creative ideas; an atmosphere of guarded speech and careful interpersonal interaction can never produce real innovation. The tragedy here is the fact that employees are  the untapped resource with the winning ideas who never bring them up because they have never been given permission to fail. Yes, mind the business tactics and make sure everything rolls up to something of strategic importance to the enterprise, senior leaders; but without an ear to the ground—without actively listening to the pipeline of ideas from front-line employees (via two-way communication channels)—corporate strategy will fail.

There’s an outcome that’s just shy of success—it’s called a near-miss. You’re not ok 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. May I wax pedantic for a moment to point out that Thomas Edison spent several years back in the 1870s experimenting with more than 100 substances, all of them failures, before he found the right filament for the first electric light bulb? 🙂

An interview published this week 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 question from me: 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.”

“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. And so in a world today that punishes, brutally 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:  Archie McPhee Seattle’s photostream, licensed by Creative Commons.