Are we killing innovation by celebrating success?

Ok. I know this may sound crazy. Aren’t we supposed to celebrate success? Isn’t that what all the management textbooks say? How do we get achievements and a focus on goals unless there is a bonus at the end? Or at least cake…..

No, I’m not saying we shouldn’t celebrate achieving goals.

What I am saying is that we might want to think about success a bit more broadly….and this includes failing to reach a goal.

Ok, stop rolling your eyes and thinking that I need a good nap or one of those jackets with long sleeves that do up in the back.

Our goals are usually set up so narrowly that we only tend to celebrate the things on the KPI list we set up once a year. We channel our energy into just getting to the number on the page and seemingly skip over any learning opportunities or improvements along the way there. Even if the achievement of that number turns out to not be all that beneficial, we still run toward it as if that is all there is to success.

The most successful people in the world have at least one simple thing in common. They failed a lot. From each failure to achieve they learned. It was this learning that meant that they took a step closer to success.

In many businesses that I have worked in, private and public, commercial and government, not achieving a target is regularly seen as worthy of shame or public derision. Sometimes even resulting in a person leaving that organisation.

Yet the basis of real success is learning and adapting based upon things either going well or not going to plan. If we do not celebrate learning from calculated risks and things not quite working out, then how do we innovate? How do we learn to do things faster, better, more easily?

The simple answer is that we can’t. Goals get set lower each time we set them so that we can reach those all important KPI’s (don’t get me started on whether all indices are key to performance….that is a different blog post). We start celebrating mediocrity and don’t seek to do better. The other end of the spectrum is the “achieve at all cost” approach in order to get the celebration. I’m not suggesting that everyone would sell out their own grandmother for a decent chocolate mud cake….but you are probably thinking of someone right now who you aren’t quite sure about!

Rethinking our reasons to celebrate might give us a different way to approach success. What if we celebrated learning a better way to manage a sales pipeline, not just a sales target? How different would the work environment be if we rewarded someone for stopping a product from going to market because they found a critical error before the promised shipping date? How much more likely are we to see people support each other and bring forward mistakes as well as better ways to do things?

If we celebrate only success based upon the numbers, we are telling people that they are only successful if they prove to be as numerically predicted. If we celebrate success based upon what new things we have learned to do now, or problems that were avoided and can be prevented in the future, we open up the possibility to a greater range of success. Don’t seek just to prove the process right, seek to improve it.

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Nathan Jones

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