One element of the Innovators Institute’s innovation training deals with the error culture in companies.
What managers have to learn and how important this is for innovation.

Many companies are not open to make mistakes. German companies in particular have an image of the infallible.
German quality workmanship is equated with absolute freedom from defects and uncompromising quality. In doing so, we find that this misinterprets the understanding of “no default”.

There is a difference between the faultlessness that a “final product”, which I offer to the market, must bring along and the faultlessness in the development process of this product.

A flawless end product inevitably causes errors in the development process.

We must not forget that our image is based on the flawless end product. There is a general consensus that German products in particular enjoy a higher reputation than products of foreign competitors. We should not and must not lose this image. Compromises on quality put companies and jobs at risk.

This makes it all the more important to consciously allow mistakes in the development process – i.e. when the end customer still has no contact with the product – and to learn from them in order to achieve an even higher quality result.

However, failure is not planned in companies during the development process, and mistakes are viewed critically. German companies lack willingness to take risks when it comes to making mistakes. Every employee is afraid of mistakes and wants to avoid them even during development. A fatal mistake!

Responsible for that are the corporate culture and the managers.

A company that does not pro-actively propagate a willingness to take risks, that does not cultivate a culture of error and that “punishes” its employees when they make mistakes creates fear. And those who are afraid are unwilling to try something new.

The managers are mostly responsible, as they are decisively responsible for the working climate and the corporate culture they live by. When employees tend to cover up mistakes for fear of consequences, they prevent learning from mistakes.

And if you reflect on yourself, you will surely agree that you learn more from mistakes than from the things that worked.

What goes wrong in our error culture?

Whether it’s the diesel scandal, plane crashes or even unsuccessful operations in the hospital – scandals and fatal errors can usually be traced back to people. To people who were worried about admitting a mistake, because in the end everybody is only looking for the “guilty party” anyway, and to people who did not dare to point out mistakes, because there was a lack of a healthy culture of mistakes.

Would a nurse point out a possible error to an operating doctor or are the hierarchies too rigid? What would have been the personal fate of the person who openly doubted the correctness of the diesel manipulations? Does the aircraft engineer say that he is simply overloaded and had no time for thorough maintenance before the plane took off?

Error culture – a carte blanche for every employee?

No, it’s not! Mistakes are never good, but they give the chance to learn from them when they are discussed. We refer to errors that must be justified. Errors in the development of a new product, errors in the intention to improve a process, errors in the establishment of a new business model. Explicitly it is not about “stupid mistakes”, careless mistakes, repetitive mistakes or mistakes of convenience, laziness or even indifference. There can be no excuse for the latter.

No innovation without fault tolerance

The term “innovation” already implies that we are moving in a new, previously untrodden terrain. A company must be prepared to admit mistakes in the context of innovations – up to the complete failure of an innovation.

If a company expects success in innovation according to the motto “Every shot a hit”, this can only backfire. To speak further metaphorically, for innovations it is more a case of “you have to kiss many frogs before you find your prince” and not be discouraged.

Declaring a failed innovation as the yardstick for one’s own ability to innovate is just as untrue as holding on to innovations that are obviously difficult to implement for better or for worse. Perseverance, willingness to take risks and curiosity are the sought-after drivers. Making mistakes is part of it.

Conclusion

  • Distinguish between errors in the end product and errors in the development process (or in the training phase).
  • Do not develop a blanket, but a thoroughly diversified error culture. Errors that arise in the course of activities aimed at the competitiveness and sustainability of the company should be treated differently from errors that arise from carelessness or indifference.
  • Encourage a reasonable willingness to take risks.
  • Abolish a “blame culture”, i.e. the search for the culprit.
  • Say goodbye to the requirements on your employees that every innovation has to work the first time.
  • Encourage a culture in which employees further down the hierarchy can point out mistakes to higher ranking employees without consequences or at least question them.
  • In particular, train your managers in how to deal with the error culture. Be much more resolute with managers who do not adhere to the error culture than with any employee.