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Safe Enough to Fail: How Leaders Can Encourage Risk-Taking and Innovation


Thu Oct 16 2014

Safe Enough to Fail: How Leaders Can Encourage Risk-Taking and Innovation

Sara Blakely, the billionaire founder of Spanx, a women’s shapewear company, tells an interesting story about how she learned to appreciate the value of smart risk-taking. When she was a child, her dad would ask her brother and her the same question every Friday evening at the dinner table: “What have you failed at this week?”

Sara says that her father’s weekly question set forth an expectation in her mind: To excel in life and work, you have to extend yourself—even to the point of failure. Now Sara carries that lesson forward in the way she reacts to employees’ mistakes at work. She notes that when people make mistakes at Spanx, especially when those mistakes shed light on a new business insight, she is never disappointed. Instead, she goes up to these employees and gives them a high five.


Unlike Sara, a lot of leaders are quick to punish and slow to forgive. When mistakes are made, they seem more interested in rubbing the errant employee’s nose in that mistake than converting it into a learning opportunity. People who report to a heavy-handed and fear-stoking leader often choose to hide mistakes rather than expose them to the light of learning.

Innovation is the lifeblood of business. Innovation is also a function of experimentation and risk-taking. When people become preoccupied with how much trouble they’ll get into if they make mistakes, they’ll never be fully innovative. As Sara suggests, inspiring innovation requires giving people “high fives” for courageous attempts, regardless of whether those attempts come up short.

So how can you promote innovation and smart risk-taking? Here are a few ways:

  • Lead the way: If you want people to extend themselves, you’ve got to extend yourself first. You have to be the first one up and off the high dive platform.

  • Clarify good mistakes: Set clear expectations around smart versus dumb mistakes. Smart mistakes are those taken thoughtfully and logically, but that result in an unintended outcome. Dumb mistakes lack forethought or are repetitive. Doubling up on the same mistake leans toward dumb.

  • Create safety: When you ask people to do something they’ve never done before, lengthen the learning curve by temporarily removing the consequences for failure. As they incrementally build their skills—and confidence—you can layer in more risk. Wait until they’re steady before removing the training wheels.

How you respond to mistakes will go a long way toward inspiring innovative behavior. It will also go a long way toward promoting self-reliance.

Learn more about how leaders create safe environments for innovation in Bill’s latest book, Leaders Open Doors, available now. Bill is donating 100 percent of the book royalties to programs that support kids with special needs.


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