Lit leadership lessons: Embracing failure to adopt everyday innovation

By Amisha Singh, DDS

I recently re-read an article in the Harvard Business Review about how to incorporate “everyday innovation” into business to help reach consumers and decrease bottlenecks. It got me thinking about the concept of innovation and how unapproachable it felt, at times, as a dental practice owner. I was so busy with working in my practice that the concept of working on my practice felt overwhelming at times. But no matter how overwhelming it felt, I also never lost sight of its importance and what it meant to leadership. 

In this article, Scott Anthony, the co-author of Eat, Sleep, Innovate, says “Innovation doesn’t have to land in the headlines to have impact. Everyday innovation can be critical to long-term business success.” That is a stunning concept; innovation does not have to be huge to be impactful. And, as dentists, a piece of our innovation is creating a culture in which our team feels empowered to innovate. It is not squarely on our shoulders to be the source of our innovation and practice development. It does, however, fall in our scope to build the foundation upon which our team is inspired and equipped to innovate. 

There are some important ways to build this into the fabric of our organizational culture. 

The first step is the most important: Embrace failure.

Think of the last time you tried something new. I will bet there was a learning curve, some mistakes that encouraged that learning and a little bit of self-doubt. I will bet that it was not easy nor very smooth. There is always some imperfection when it comes to innovation because research has definitively shown us that learning cannot happen outside of your comfort zone. When you or your team innovate, pivoting is a necessary step. So your job as a leader is to create a safe playground for innovation … and a critical piece of that is normalizing failure. I often tell my students that the path to success is littered with moments of failure. You have to get through failure to get to success. Rinse and repeat. 

So how does a culture weave failure into who they are? Is this even something I want to do in my practice? Isn’t failing bad? 

Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, the founders of The Skimm, had a tradition they created in their start-up. They bought a hard hat from a construction depot and labeled it the Fail-So-Hard-Hat. As two former news producers, their mission was to change accessibility and integration of media consumption for the average American and their concept was innovative. They knew they needed to create a team of everyday innovators to make their company what it is today (with 7 million subscribers and growing). And they recognized innovation does not happen without failure. So, at every Friday team meeting, the Fail-So-Hard-Hat became a coveted prize. Any team member who had tried something new, big, and exciting and had encountered failure would win. They got to keep the hat on their desk for the remainder of the week, a visual (and very bright orange) reminder of how important it was to step outside of your comfort zone. Failure, and, by extent, resiliency and trying again, became celebrated pieces of their culture. 

In our dental practices, if we find ways to name failure without judgement, to separate failure from worth, success, and value of our team, we will then be able to create a culture of innovation. If we open our arms and embrace that turbulent and imperfect start, and recognize that it is just that, a start, then we will unlock the next level of innovation in our practice and in our leadership.

Next read: Dr. Singh discusses how to deal with Imposter Syndrome

Dr. Amisha Singh is a Denver native and loves living in beautiful Colorado. She is a dentist and has dedicated her career to equity and inclusion in higher education and healthcare. She is faculty at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine and serves as the Director of Diversity and Inclusion. She serves on the ADA Dental Wellbeing Advisory Committee, the ADA Council for Health Literacy, and the ADA Women in Leadership Thinktank. She is also a blogger and professional speaker who travels the country to inspire other healthcare professionals and advocate for equity in higher education. She currently serves as an ADA Success Speaker, participates in the ADA Institute of Diversity in Leadership and is the founder of the CDA Diversity in Leadership program. She was recognized as one of the 2017 10 Under 10 Top ADA Dentists nationally. Her passion is encouraging entrepreneurial spirit, inspiring others and she wants to dedicate her life to helping create equitable paths to success for all.  When not practicing dentistry, she loves to get lost in a good book, cook, and do all things creative.

Note: Photo of “Do not fear failure” by Tomasz Stasiuk is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/