To Encourage Innovation, Eradicate Blame

Leaders who take a more constructive approach to failure can begin eliminating the fear, reticence, and inertia that plagues many organizations.

There is a big difference between identifying the cause of a negative outcome and looking for someone to blame it on. Identifying the cause of a negative outcome is productive. You can use that information to avoid the situation in the future and also help people take responsibility for fixing it and moving on.

Finding fault and assigning blame, on the other hand, creates a situation where people become stuck and paralyzed. It’s a negative approach that assumes neglect or malfeasance that requires punishment. This type of attitude produces a risk-averse organization where people play it safe instead of stepping out and trying new ideas.
Now your organization takes on a culture similar to the classic arcade game, Whac-A-Mole, where most employees keep their head down except for the unsuspecting novice who pops his head up only to have the oversized mallet pound him or her back down if their initiative fails. Once an organization develops that type of culture, it is very difficult for innovation to take hold.

We know that the most innovative environments are those where people are allowed to learn from past mistakes, grow, develop, and improve. That's what evolution and innovation look like. That's how Thomas Edison was able to learn from the thousands of times he failed due to using the wrong material for his light bulb filament. Each time, he recognized that he was one step closer to finding the right material.

It’s also the approach used by WD-40 Company--manufacturers of the ubiquitous “water displacement” product of the same name--whose closely guarded formula was discovered on the 40th try back in 1953.

As CEO Garry Ridge has describes it, part of WD-40’s ongoing success with innovation can be traced back to a culture where employees share the positive and negative outcomes of any situation. As Ridge explains, “At WD-40 Company, we don’t make mistakes. We have learning moments. We give people permission to have a conversation about things that go wrong.”

Three steps for moving forward

When people’s fear of making a mistake becomes a problem, you are cutting yourself off from the necessary ingredients for learning and innovation. For leaders interested in creating a culture that sees mistakes as learning opportunities instead of fault-finding exercises, here are three ways to get started.

Examine your current attitude toward mistakes. As a company, what’s your typical reaction to mistakes and failures? Are they seen as an opportunity to learn or to assign blame? Look at this from an individual aspect also. How are you wired internally? Are you overly critical, or do you learn from your mistakes and move on? It’s important to learn from your mistakes, but don't live in the past. If you tend to dwell on negative thoughts about yourself, consider how this negativity might be spilling out into your perceptions of others. Negativity is a habit. Consider the impact.

Consider your impact as a leader. What you are doing to encourage people to take risks and try something truly innovative? Are you celebrating the vigor of their pursuit even though the outcome is uncertain? Keeping new ideas alive is hard work. It always takes longer than you think it will, you run into problems, and it very rarely goes as originally planned. Are you recognizing the efforts of people who take risks in spite of the threat of failure?

Find ways to engage in positive practices as a discipline. It's so easy for things to turn negative. That’s what keeps a lid on so many organizations. As a leader, it’s important to move from fault and blame to cause and responsibility. Typically, when something goes wrong, the immediate response is find out who was at fault, punish them, and then bring in someone new to be responsible for moving the organization forward. Why not give your current people the same benefit of the doubt that you would a new person? Instead of assigning blame, look to assign responsibility for moving the organization forward given what was just learned.

Leaders who take this more constructive approach can begin eliminating the fear, reticence, and inertia that plagues many organizations. Develop practices that accentuate the positive and help people feel secure in knowing the organization wants them to step forward and try new things confidently. With practice, you’ll see the difference you can make in the generation, pursuit, and adoption of new ideas.

--Scott Blanchard is the cofounder of Blanchard Certified, a new cloud-based leadership development resource and experience. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager® and 50 other books on leadership. Both will be speaking on growth and innovation at the Blanchard Summit 2012: Fast Forward: Lead, Innovate and Cultivate.

[Image: Flickr user Roger Bocksnick]

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10 Comments

  • Ranjit Sandhu

    umm it's called POLITICS, blaming people for screw ups is a good way to demolish them and enhance yourself for the next promotion.

  • Henric Skygge

    i completely agree upon this. We all have to search our souls when things go wrong. Looking at our own shortcomings and be very humble to the environment, meaning eveyone around us. We all have to, as i see it never ever have to put blame upon anyone. Our relations and communication between eachother is as i see it the most difficult equation of all, and is easily misunderstod leading to unnecessery conflict situations, where there is no one to blame :-).
    Best regards,

    Henric

  • Svdb

    Agree, but this is just the first step.
    Innovation also requires space and time. If someone at the WD-40 company was able to make 40 "mistakes" before finding the right formula, it's because he was allowed to. Innovating is a full time job and needs to be given space (literally and figuratively) and time to go from a spark to an idea to a product. Pressure is also an innovation deterrent, just as much as fear. Read about the myth of the Eureka moment.

  • Graham DBA

    Yes time and space is required to relax and refine. "Relax for easy power" said Norman Vincent Peale in his "Power of Positive Thinking". 

    One thing about WD-40 ...... I used it a lot on electrical systems when I had cheap cars where it excelled. The product would not translate well into a door hinge lubricant when I needed that. Mainly because of its oily nature and odour. Google "silicone lubricant spray" to see a superior product for door hinge lubrication. So I see products have their place and I guess people do as well.

  • Alan Whiston

    Agree. Space and time are key in order to foster true innovation and the ability to try out various solutions to the problem at hand. As leaders we often get to involved in the cycle of what, who and why rather than what did we learn and are there any key risks to the business that we need to mitigate in order the keep trying to solve the problem at hand on an innovative way.

  • John Craven

    I completely agree with this article! one dimension I would add to this discussion is the principal of focusing forward.   Beyond the firms cultural environment of curbing innovation, moderate risk taking, and creativity caused from shooting the individuals that make mistakes-- the firm loses even more in lost productivity and focus on the job at hand.   The concept of focusing on the solution to a problem and not who is to blame per se, allows the organization to value critical thinking, energizes team work, and encourages risk taking.   Spending only 10% of your effort on the why's and 90% of your effort to learn and fix the issue strengthens the organization, inside out.  

  • Jill T

    Negative thoughts have more of an impact on us than we think! I recently learned that 80% of our 70,000 daily thoughts are negative in nature; that's a whole lot of discouragement floating around in our brains. The best way to kill them is by focusing on the present and making the best of what we have. If we're not happy, then it's up to us to make changes!

  • GilPizano

    The Deming principle of "Removing the Fear" is probably more important today than ever in the history of business. Blame and the fear of punishment causes many organizations to loose very important domain knowledge that can help position a company to be tomorrow's leader in their respective industry. "What is the opportunity cost of a mistake made?" would be a good question for an organization's leadership to ask everytime one happens. Depending upon the mistake and what factors caused it, a $10,000 mistake (for example) 'could' be more of a $10,000 lesson that may help a company prevent a future $1M mistake.

    Great article!

  • Blanchard LeaderChat

    Discovering what you can learn from business failure is much different than seeking out who was at fault and assigning blame.  The first approach leads to increased learning.  The second approach shuts it down.  Great reminder on remembering the difference.

  • Sunanda Nair

    Totally agree. Realizing what the problem is and working to fix it as a team is better than spending time on finding who is to blame.