(editor’s note: This post is part of the HR Blog Exchange. An idea cooked up by Steve Boese last month. Yeah I know, we’re fashionably late on this one. But better late than never. Enjoy the post by Chris Ferdinandi from Renegade HR).
Humans are pretty puny, physically speaking. We’re relatively weak for our body size, and we don’t even have enough body hair to survive a chilly night. So how, in about just 200,000 years, did we move from the saber-tooth tiger lunch menu to the top of the food chain?
Humans are natural explorers and innovators. It’s hard-wired into our brains. Our ability to create and innovate helped us survive on the Savannah – and it can help us thrive in the workplace.
Populating the planet, terrible twos, and the joy of learning
The human species started in a tiny pocket of East Africa just about 200,000 years ago. For generations, we remained tucked along the coast. Then, about 100,000 years ago, we started moving. Fast. By 12,000 years ago, we had populated pretty much the entire planet. We evolved to explore.
You can see this natural exploration in children. Every time a baby encounters a new object, they touch it. They hold it up to their ear. They put it in their mouth. They give it to you to put in your mouth.
During the terrible-twos, children start pushing boundaries to see what they can and can’t get away. This may seem like wanton rebellion, but it’s actually scientific exploration – they develop a hypothesis, conduct a social experiment, and revise their understanding of how they’re supposed to behave.
As they get older, children seem to really enjoy learning (in the right environment, anyways). I can remember spending hours with my friends exploring the woods near our house. We’d build bridges and forts, discover new bugs, and find new geography we hadn’t seen before. We would play make-believe, transforming a tree into a castle, a backyard into a battleground, and cardboard wrapping-paper tubes into swords. Classroom learning was pretty boring, but exploration, that was fun!
This natural tendency to learn (and enjoy it) can continue throughout a person’s lifetime. While some areas of the brain deteriorate with age, researchers have found that the regions involved in learning can continue to develop new connections and even create new neurons.
What enables adults to keep learning, exploring and innovating? Environment matters. A lot.
Brilliant failure, and coloring outside the lines
If people are given the freedom to explore, they will. One of the biggest inhibitors of innovation is fear of failure. Innovation cannot happen without excellent mistakes. Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I don’t think people are scared of failure itself, but rather the consequences of failure.
Unfortunately, most workplaces are structured to punish failure. Performance evaluations judge our performance, and often critique our weaknesses and failures. Management by objective (MBO) systems focus on our results and outcomes. Pay for performance systems only reward our successes – not our brilliant failures.
The notion that failure is bad doesn’t start in the workplace. It’s been drilled into us from kindergarten, where we’re taught that coloring outside the lines is bad. That’s a hard habit to break!
By understanding our natural joy of learning and exploring, we can create a more innovative workforce. I don’t have any guaranteed solutions, but I do have some ideas.
Indirect learning (classroom and book learning) is important. You wouldn’t teach someone how to sky-dive by pushing them out of a plane. But hands-on learning is a lot more natural – and a lot more fun! If you want your workforce to enjoy learning and development, you may want to encourage on the job development, stretch assignments, shadowing and mentoring as much as you focus on training programs and classroom learning.
Making learning fun and interactive is only half the battle. In order to truly have an innovative workplace, you need to foster a culture that encourages people to make excellent mistakes.
At Google, all employees have 20 percent time – eight hours a week (20 percent of their time) to work on any project they want to. Employees use this time to form informal project groups and develop new applications, systems and programs. They explore. They play. They make excellent mistakes. As much as 50 percent of Google’s new products – including Gmail – come from 20 percent time.
I’m not saying you should implement 20 percent time where you work, but you should develop some type of system that makes it safe for your employees to have brilliant failures.
I think pay-for-performance and MBO are great performance management systems. I’m not saying that we should eliminate them. But I do wonder if these systems stifle workplace creativity by systematizing a fear of failure. As human resources pros, we should explore new ways of managing performance that reward performance but also make it OK to make excellent mistakes and embrace our natural tendency to explore and innovate.
How would you create a workplace that inspires innovation?