Embracing failure and building an innovative culture

Many organisations get lucky with innovation, but become ‘one hit’ wonders because they don’t have a sustainable approach in place to replicate their successes again and again.

That was the view of Dr. Amantha Imber, the founder of innovation consultancy Inventium, at the recent 2016 Indue Leadership Forum: The Art of Thinking Differently in Sydney.

Imber, an innovation psychologist, author and co-creator of the AFR Most Innovative Companies list, defined innovation as “change that adds value” and provided the following tips to help organisations get better at the process.

Start with frustrations

“Many companies start the innovation process with ideas,” said Imber. “The problem with that is that you are possibly disconnected from your customers and what matters to them.”

Instead, she advised asking your customers what frustrates or worries them when receiving products or services from you. “Anything that’s pissed them off is a massive opportunity for innovation. Some of the most successful ideas in the world have come off the back of things that have really frustrated the person that came up with the idea.”

Crush assumptions

“Assumptions, or the things we assume to be true, are one of the biggest creativity killers out there,” said Imber. “They fence in your thinking. They tell your brain you can’t wander beyond this area here. So we want to deliberately identify those assumptions, test them and ask what if the opposite was true. The best ideas on the planet are often the result of doing this.”

Go wide

“Sometimes, great depth of knowledge and experience can come at the detriment of breadth of knowledge and experience,” said Imber. “I call this phenomenon the ‘expert’s blinkers’.”

She advised deliberately going wide in your own knowledge and experience and with that of your team. “Aim to be ‘T’ shaped rather than ‘I’ shaped because it’s those who have gone wide that have tended to come up with the most creative solutions.”

Improve your decision-making ability

“The success of what you are doing is likely to be driven by how good a decision you are making,” said Imber. “Also recognise decision fatigue.”

She noted that research had revealed that the most important decisions should be made before lunch. She likened decision-making to a battery. “After a good night’s sleep your decision-making battery is full. After that, every decision you make during the day eats away at that battery’s power. So by the end of the day that battery is pretty much running on empty. The quality of the decisions you make deteriorates over the day and the more decisions you make over the day, the worse the quality of your decisions become.”

Build the right culture

“Build a culture where people are comfortable with risk-taking and where failure is not a dirty word,” said Imber. “In many organisations, when failure happens, it often gets swept under the carpet and that is really damaging if you are trying to create a culture where innovation thrives. It is vital to shine a spotlight on failure and allow people to dare to try.”

She advised examining how you signal to your organisation that you are okay with risk-taking. “It’s almost impossible to innovate effectively without taking some risks… As a leader, be open about the failures that have happened to you. That is powerful and it makes others less afraid to take risks.”

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