How do you encourage innovation?

As a parent of two boys I learned a lot about how to encourage – yet put reasonable boundaries on – creativity and experimentation. No matter what form these activities took, we usually referred to them as “science projects.” Using the contents of the fridge and kitchen cupboards to see what makes what turn colour and – even better – erupt? Fantastic. Using all of mom’s skin and hair care products to see how full the toilet bowl can get? Not so much…

Over time and conversation with other parents I came to understand that my openness to mess and experimentation was a little different than that of most others. I attribute that at least in part to being the child of entrepreneurs. Growing up we heard lots of stories about business ventures, product experiments and even store displays that had varying degrees of success and sustainability. It was as normal to hear about things that didn’t work as it was to celebrate wins and successes.

I was the first in my family to get a corporate job, and I wasn’t terribly good at it. Hindsight being as revelatory as it is, I now understand that the conditions for success and the fears about failure mystified me. Why was no one trying new things? Asking the weird question? Swimming upstream, even just a little? Challenging the status quo?

In my last stop on the corporate ladder I witnessed a great example of what I’d been missing. One of the company’s high potential people, whose path had been in sales, was assigned to my team so he could do a stint in marketing. Early on he shared his big idea – we should launch a product that he knew was in development in the R&D labs at our parent company in the U.S. It was different, unique, and he proposed launching it under one of our big brand names with a splashy (read: expensive) campaign. He pitched it, trading pretty heavily on his reputation for being a smart and strategic leader, and got it approved.

Long story short – it failed. By every conventional measure it was an unmitigated disaster. But it was what happened next that was astonishing.

He stood up in front of the executive team to debrief and “explain” – and he owned it. Took responsibility. Shared where he could see he’d taken wrong turns, what he would do differently in the future and – best of all – what the company could learn from the experience.

Not only did this very expensive and public “failure” not damage his career – it fuelled it. He went on to great things.

So you think that would have inspired me to take chances, wouldn’t you? Although some would say that leaving the corporate track to leap into a profession that pretty much didn’t exist was courageous…Oddly that decision never felt particularly brave. It was just what made sense, at least to me. But the day to day running of the business? If I’m completely honest, I think I’ve played it pretty safe.

We’ve stayed with one line of business that has generated a steady stream of referrals – it’s worked well for us for a long time. But recently, I’ve been feeling a bit like we are missing something. Not playing big enough. Not having the kind of impact I think we can have. And – most importantly – not contributing enough to solving the massive problems that organizations and leaders are dealing with.

What needs to happen? Well, I’ve realized that “what got us here” won’t “get us there,” to paraphrase my friend Marshall Goldsmith.

So I’m launching some “science projects.” Some initiatives I hope will fuel the business to even greater heights, providing my team of extraordinary coaches with an even more robust stream of great work and ultimately supporting more leaders to thrive. Some of the projects will work, I’m sure, and others probably won’t. Either way, I’ll learn something.

As a leader, I think it’s essential that you encourage “science projects” – chances your team can take where the goal is learning, and where it’s safe to find out when things don’t work. Not only that, I think it’s essential that you take some on yourself! Your people need to see that you’re willing to fail, and that you learn from every action and initiative.

As Miss Frizzle, of Magic School Bus fame, says,”Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy.”