I’ve been reflecting on failure recently.  Specifically, I’ve been wondering why do some empowerment and innovation programmes simply fail to get off the blocks and make any lasting impact on the host organisation?  The conclusion I’m reaching is that it’s most often a failure of leadership rather than any failure on the part of the organisation’s people.

Now I know this won’t be news for many.  There’s a reason why so many organisations spend large chunks of their training budgets on trying to create better leaders – and that’s good. Maybe I’d just like to add a couple of items to the leadership development curriculum.

One suggestion I’d make is that leaders need to learn how to have more faith in their people.  It seems to me that the rank-and-file employee is capable of making a much bigger – and better – contribution than many leaders seem to be prepared to believe.  A number of observations I’ve made even in the last couple of weeks is fuelling a growing feeling that many leaders just have very low expectations of what their staff can do.

In one organisation, we’ve been trying for a while to get leadership to publish some engaging and meaningful challenges – current problems and opportunities – that would encourage employees at all levels to contribute ideas that could make a real difference.  After much cajoling and persuasion, leaders prepared a challenge that was distinctly underwhelming – generic and completely unambitious.  There’s no way this organisation doesn’t have bigger and more relevant issues that currently the leadership doesn’t know how to solve.  It appears however, they are totally resistant to the notion of asking their people for help.  Further discussion led me to see that they actually don’t think that the wider workforce would have anything meaningful to add by way of good ideas. Hard to make an empowerment programme work if this is the leadership’s mindset.

This episode reminded me of another project I was involved in a few years ago – thankfully much more successfully. I collected some video testimonial from the earlier project and looked this out to refresh my memory. Front and centre in the video is Kevin – Engineering Director for the company in question.  One thing that Kevin said in the video really hit home.  He said “When we had the ideas session with fitters and apprentices and they produced 103 great new ideas, this was a major turning point for us.  This made us believe that our people had really good ideas – we just needed to have the confidence to ask them!”

I remember at the time thinking that this was quite a telling statement.  I had forgotten how reluctant the leaders in that organisation had been to make real efforts to involve their people in innovation efforts.  Kevin, in fact, had been enormously relieved that the ideas session actually worked. He had major reservations about – as he saw it – putting people under pressure.  In addition, his use of the word “confidence” was significant.  The major breakthrough that Kevin described was the dawning that he and his leadership colleagues don’t need to have all the good ideas.  They make a much bigger impact by stepping back and letting everyone else step up.  The leadership required for this to work lies in the belief they show in everyone else.