Mistakes are bound to happen, in IT as anywhere. Is it appropriate to fire someone for a mistake? Should we penalize someone for failure in an innovative venture? I would argue against it.
Such an atmosphere could be deadly for innovation within any organization, but more so in an IT organization. Organizations and IT leaders that do not tolerate mistakes -- or innovative failures -- are likely to stagnate. Fear of retribution will reduce productivity and creativity and may cause the most valuable and innovative employees to leave.
People who do nothing make no mistakes. People who do nothing have no failures. The more a person does, the more opportunities there are for that person to make a mistake. So in an organization we should never penalize for mistakes. What we should do is teach people to ensure that they take adequate precautions to recover from a mistake. A good example is making a backup of the system before making a change. Another example is discussing a high-risk action or plan with other qualified people before execution.
Risk management should be part of the standard operating procedure. If a person fails to follow this procedure, we may have an argument for consequences. It is important to ensure that people feel comfortable owning up to errors so that appropriate corrective action can be applied and people can learn how to avoid the mistake in the future.
Quality control reduces errors and mistakes. All members of a team should work toward an atmosphere where people help each other avoid errors and share lessons learned. We should never hide or gloss over bad events.
Innovative people will have some ideas and projects that will not succeed. The person who executes on 10 innovative ideas will most likely fail in a few. If you are going to fail, it is important to fail early and inexpensively. It is dangerous to continue implementing a bad idea for fear of organizational retribution.
A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Jamshed Irani, former CEO of Tata Steel, who turned around the company in the late 80s and early 90s by engaging the entire organization in a culture of innovation. One of the ideas that emerged during his tenure was Tata's practice of giving "Dare to Try" awards for innovative ideas that were operationally unsuccessful.
Failed ideas teach us what does not work and provide the opportunity to think critically so that the next idea has a better chance of success.
There is an inherent risk of failure in trying anything new. We should ensure that people within a team are free to speak their minds and constructively criticize any new idea -- even if the idea comes from the team leader. People closest to the leader are more likely to see the flaws in the idea -- they may even be more qualified to evaluate the risks of the idea appropriately.
After various perspectives have been provided and everyone has had an opportunity to punch holes in the idea, chances are very high that the final decision will be stronger, with more of the risks identified and appropriately addressed. People should not feel bad about saying something incorrect. Only people who say nothing are always correct. People who actively participate in discussions are bound to say something incorrect once in awhile. It is important to recognize and acknowledge that this is going to happen.
So let us set our people free to innovate, create, and debate; and let our organizations enjoy the wonderful rewards of such an atmosphere.