Employee innovation isn’t simply a by-product of a great innovation program or company culture. It’s also the removal or reduction of one key key dynamic.
Stop this if you want more employee innovation
Peter Drucker once said, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”
Most people writing about innovation focus on the culture and dynamics that encourage it. While much of that writing is useful, I find Drucker’s quote most useful. It’s not simply that you want a team to come up with new ideas. That’s the new thing.
You also want to eliminate any issues that stop your team from innovating.
The one thing that stops employee innovation is blame. Blame is the constraining factor you have to control if you want people to take the risk of trying something new.
The Consequences of Blame
When risks don’t result in home runs you can either learn from it, or blame someone. The natural consequence of being a leader is that people what what you do more than what you say. And if you find yourself looking for someone to blame, your team will follow that model and start blaming each other as well.
The consequences of a blame-driven culture are many.
Blame reduces power. When you blame someone else for the consequences of a risk, you put the power in their hands rather than your own. This reduces your ability to act because you believe the power resides elsewhere.
Blame shifts focus. Blame naturally looks to answer the “who” question rather than any other. Instead of asking “what” went wrong and “how” can we learn from it, everyone focuses in the wrong place.
Blame limits learning. Not every risk will pay off. Sometimes, depending on the situation, analysis of the situation can lead to better learning and the elimination of a future risk. But not if you’re focused on blaming someone instead of learning.
Blame eliminates a culture of accountability. What every team wants is people who own their own work, who own their own decisions. That’s how teams play well together. They trust that the person on their left or right isn’t a slacker – that they’re responsible and accountable. Blame rips that apart.
Blame can scapegoat a person. When you assign blame, you’re changing the narrative from a set of forces that resulted in an unhappy result to a narrative that says one person is as fault. More often than not, this isn’t true. And if it’s not true, you eliminate a bond between that teammates and the rest of the team – which limits their engagement.
Blame turns a result into a mistake. A risk will have a result. Positive or negative, it will have a result. But when blame is the common reaction to a negative result, we teach our teams that the mistake was not the result but rather the risk. In so doing, we communicate to our teams that they should take no risks.
Shrink innovation and retrain your teams
Five years ago, after a couple years of academic research and years of practical corporate experience, my boss and I worked to eliminate blame (and the resulting fear) from innovation.
Instead of talking about Initiatives (with a capital “I”), we introduced initiatives (with a lower case “i”). We literally called these Lower Case Initiatives (LCIs) – and the irony of a capital there is not lost on me.
The notion was to equip staff, at any level, to create their own LCI projects without needing executive approval. The result is that these would be smaller projects (often accomplished in a couple of days) and because of that, far less scrutinized.
The smaller the risk, the less people would initially worry about their fear of failure (and blame). It also increased the overall amount of innovation happening (tiny, little innovations) – which increased the rate of failure.
But this was the opportunity to model new behavior – and in this case the result was nothing. Zero. No reaction. And far more importantly, no blame.
There was no mistake. No talk of a mistake. Because we were looking to recast the narrative. And when you try to articulate a specific cause-and-effect relationship where they may not be one, the result isn’t just blame but an underlying message that is loud and clear to employees.
“You should have been able to predict this result, and therefore, you’re not a good risk taker, and so what I’m telling you is that you should take risks. “
That isn’t the message anyone wants to hear. So we focused on giving people freedom to make mistakes in small ways without consequences and clearly without any “blame” discussion.
And the craziest thing happened. People who took risks learned to learn how to evaluate risk better – which results in less risky behavior.
Blame kills employee innovation. Employees free from blame, even when they make mistakes, will not only make mistakes but learn from them and learn to take better risks. And that results in far greater innovation.