Evolution teaches us that failure, not success, breeds a better dinosaur. So, when an organization shares, “best practices”, the meta communication is, “Do it this way, because then you won’t screw up.” They’ve handed out the coloring books, and the placid students know that if you pick nice colors and keep your crayon from straying outside the lines, you’ll end up with a nice picture of Bambi.

But that’s not how innovation happens.

“Best Pratices” have a place, just like recipe books. They guide you toward a result, and often that result is edible, even delicious. But innovation comes because someone asked, “What happens if I add more cayenne and some coriander?” or “Can we turn up the heat?” Asking questions, as any kid will tell you, uncovers some pretty lame answers: “Because that’s how it’s done, that’s why!”, “Because I said so!”, “Because we’ve always done it that way!”

The challenge for an organization is developing a culture with a tolerance for questions, for failure, for change. Ask yourself a question: “How do I react when my ideas are questioned or challenged?” If your response is unflattering, try this. A therapist once exhorted me, “When you feel yourself getting defensive, get curious.” She meant me to look inside for what button was being pushed, and to find a place from which I could respond without ego and ask, “Why are you asking me that?” In the case of your “Best Practices”, you might want to query your interlocutor, “What about our ‘Best Practices’ are you struggling with, or you’d like to change?”

The innovative culture has a high tolerance for half-baked ideas. When your colleague is butting up against your “Best Practices” but doesn’t have a fully-articulated alternative, you provide the resources to flesh it out: maybe it’s time, maybe it’s some thoughtful questions, maybe it’s a few bucks from your innovation slush fund to try something else. Find a way to support it.
Innovation culture also tolerates – even celebrates – failure. In fact, I wish more hiring managers would spend time talking to candidates about where they failed, how they handled it and what they learned from it. We’ve come out of several years of pandemic failure and uncertainty with more to come. “Best Practices” presume stability, that you’ve got crayons, your coloring book is clean and dry and you’re ready to color. In the absense of those requirements, you’ll need leadership ithat can work without lines. Or even crayons. And therein lies the art. And the innovation.