Mistaken Innovation; The Key to Leadership Development?

Chris Smith


I read a book recently that got me thinking. ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Matthew Syed was, in reality, a bit wordy and suffers from unnecessary repetition at times. However, in my opinion, the essence of the book is one of the greatest lessons for any individual or business when it comes to innovation and personal development.

The core principle is this; the sooner you can accept and identify the concept of making mistakes without blame, the sooner this can be used as a process for innovation and development.

Let’s take an example that Syed refers to in his book. On one side, you have the aviation industry which has developed an inherent culture where every time there is a mistake or failure, it is recorded, reviewed, a lesson is learned, and a new process is consequently implemented to ensure this mistake never happens again. On the other side, you have the medical industry where mistakes are commonly covered up to protect the ego of a senior doctor or surgeon who doesn’t dare risk the years of training and reputation they have built to openly admit they had done something wrong; even if this has a severe negative impact on their patients. Hierarchy prevents the junior assistants from speaking up and challenging their senior colleagues’ actions and thus, the industry does not learn from these mistakes. This restricts its ability to achieve the number one goal of the industry; to improve the lives of their patients. I’d recommend reading Black Box Thinking to discover some scary statistics around the regularity of these repeat mistakes!

6 Group operates across several global industries (including energy, industrial, utilities, science and financial services) and regularly delivers leadership assessment programmes for major international organisations. During the feedback sessions with dozens of senior executives on a recent project in the Nordics, I found that the topic of proactively asking for feedback and actively looking for mistakes was particularly poignant and relevant for many of the participants.

It is evident that in many industrial sectors, there is still a hierarchical culture where strategy is driven from the top and pushed downwards through the organisation. The CEO must have “x” years of experience and managers are often promoted due to a combination of tenure and relationships with key stakeholders. This breeds an environment where employees have limited freedom to experiment and innovate unless it is in line with key corporate objectives around time, cost and measurable results.

Now I’m not saying that these leaders don’t deserve to be in their current positions. They are generally skilled, inspiring and have earned their right to manage others through success. But my question is not about how successful they have been. My question is how many mistakes did they make along the way? And did they choose to openly acknowledge them in order to learn quickly, or did they cover the mistakes up to protect their own reputations? My assumption is that everyone reading this article can remember times when they have chosen to ignore their mistakes and forget about them, rather than address them head-on.

The greatest innovators of modern times (Elon Musk, James Dyson and Mark Zuckerberg to name a few) are highly intelligent and skilled in their own professions, but they also possess some very key traits;

  • Determination – they identified an opportunity and didn’t stop developing until they arrived at the most practical solution.
  • Resilience – no matter how many people criticised their ideas, they backed themselves and persevered because they had the passion to keep going where others would have capitulated.
  • Continuous Improvement – they didn’t stop at the first solution. On a personal level and on a business level, they continue to develop new ideas and find better ways of doing things.

However, most importantly, they made THOUSANDS of mistakes! And critically, in their minds, each mistake they made was a step closer to achieving the end goal.

I have advised many senior leaders to find a way to be more proactive about asking for feedback, identifying and addressing their own mistakes and encouraging others to do the same. This is easy for me to say, and I acknowledge that in old traditional industries it can be difficult to avoid the natural blame culture that has developed over many decades and iterations of leadership. However, if a culture can be developed where hierarchy is dismissed, and mistakes are accepted as a natural pathway to innovation, I genuinely believe that this is one of the key factors of leadership excellence and business performance.


6 Group is the leading facilitator of transformational change. We work with clients to bring about evolution within their businesses through the rigorous assessment and development of their leaders. 

For a discussion about how we can support your assessment & development plans, get in touch using the contact for below.

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