Years ago I read a book called “Teaching the Elephant to Dance.” The key concept in the book is captured in this metaphor the author describes.
Apparently when elephants are trained in a circus, their legs are tied to a stake by a chain. Even after the chain is removed the elephants continue to imagine that they are chained. The only time the elephant acts on its own is when the circus tent catches fire. That is when the elephant ‘sees fire in its eyes and smells smoke in its nostrils’. Most employees in organisations are like these elephants. Even when they are empowered their minds are chained.
I used to be the head of a business when I learned this important insight. Our business was growing and I could no more be involved in everything. I thought I had empowered my colleagues, yet things kept coming back to me. Finally one of my colleagues shared why this happened.
First the employees did not believe they were empowered. Second they were not sure how I would treat their mistakes.
My colleague said that “It is like giving me a driving license without giving me a car to drive.”
It hit me like a bolt. I then remembered how my boss had treated my mistakes. Every time it was treated as a building block for learning. In one particular instance, the mistake I made resulted in a substantial loss for the company. In addition we had an irate client on hand. I thought I would lose my job.
My boss simply said “Tell me, if you had an opportunity to rewind and start all over again, what would you differently? Now you have additional knowledge about what does not work.”
His approach was an eye opener for me. He simply used that opportunity to ignite my imagination and thinking. He used the mistake as a spring board for new ideas. His tone and manner was supportive and encouraging. There was no admonition, no punishment.
That is when I understood what it meant to be empowered. When I am truly empowered I break the chains that tie me to my ‘fear of failure’ and ‘pressure to succeed’.
Now it was my turn to help my people become ‘empowered‘ by doing what my boss did for me. I must ensure that the license I gave them was ‘a license to imagine, create and act’ and not merely a license to think.
Innovation is all about ‘Imagination, creation and action’. The element of action makes innovation come live. Every one understands the concept of empowerment but do not practise it well. The reason is fear of failure. Both bosses and employees suffer from this ‘Fear of failure’. No body wants this label called failure.
I therefore think that we must approach this issue of empowerment differently. Remember how James Bond was given the license to kill? Like wise we must issue licenses to employees called ‘License to fail’.
This license could be initially valid for six month, as a learner’s license. The employee who has the license must wear this license like a badge.
During this period the employee must try new things on his job. In the six months period he must report at least two things he tried and failed. Then he will get a regular license for one year, renewable every year. The renewal will be based on failures he reports - at least three instances in a year. Each failure report must be accompanied by lessons learned, and ideas for improvement for the future. Otherwise the license will be cancelled.
There is no use issuing the license of empowerment if you cannot use it to try new things and make some mistakes on the way.
I think it is Einstein who said that “If you have made no mistakes, you have not learned anything.”
Innovation is about doing new things to add value to our stake holders. The emphasis is on doing and new.
If you are an employee, ask for this license if you want your job to be more challenging, exciting and interesting. If you already have the license of empowerment, test it and fail in something. If you are punished for failure, you are obviously working for the wrong company.
If you have the license and do not use it, remember that you will be left behind by those who have the guts to use the license, make mistakes and learn from them and innovate. They are more useful to the management.
Go ahead and use your empowerment - your license to fail. Have fun!