Do you remember being 6 years old?

What did your teachers tell you?

The 20:2 principle is, when as a small child, you show your parents or your teacher your math homework. There were 20 questions. You got 18 right. Yet rather than getting a ‘well done’ for the 18 right answers, the focus from your parents and teachers was on the two answers you got wrong.

I often talk about creativity and innovation and how children are some of the most creative people I know, because they are not afraid to ask ‘why?’

However, as we grow older we learn in school that we get rewarded for getting things right and following instruction and not for inquisitive enquiry, experimenting or ideas, and certainly not for innovation or for getting things wrong. Check this example, this answer absolutely answers the question – yet it was deemed wrong and got a big red cross.


Ken Robinson, author, speaker and international advisor on education in the arts to government in the UK is critical of the education system in the UK for its role in inhibiting creative thinking. One of the results of this is that we tend to stick to what we know, to safe situations and habits that we repeat over and over again. Whilst this in some ways can be helpful, for example, we know a system works and we continue to use it in that way, the risk is that if we only do more of the same, or we don’t innovate or adapt quickly enough we, and our organisations will fail.

Listen to Ken Robinson how schools kill creativity on TED.

What does this mean for you?

If you are trying to drive change and innovation in your organisation, you are likely to have seen an opportunity to find a better way to develop a product or deliver a service. You are likely to be bringing something new and different to improve the lives of your customers because doing more of the same is not good enough.

The impact of the 20:2 principle is that we feel safer sticking with what we know, we prefer not to innovate, not to take risks, and we know we will be rewarded for getting things right. We conform. We prefer not to challenge or test new ideas that may fail, or be marked wrong.

I typically see this play out in two ways. In organisations when people arrive in new roles, from junior staff to board members they want to fit in and be rewarded for getting things right. They spend some time settling into their roles, ‘earning their stars’ before being ‘too challenging’. By the time they have settled in, got to know the culture, learnt the systems and understood the internal politics they are part of the fabric of the organisation and their ability to challenge has been massively reduced.

Alternatively they arrive blazing a trail, and before too long despite being employed to shake things up and drive change their enthusiasm is slowly drained out of them as they get thwarted by bureaucratic processes and slowly wade through treacle as they battle the ‘that’s not how we do things here’ response to change. Eventually they leave with the hope that they could really thrive at being a maverick some place else. Or thrive being an entrepreneur by setting up their own business to drive the change that they could not lead in an established organisation.

If we want to make any type of change or innovation happen, we have to become experts at managing the impact of the 20:2 principle. We are not in the business of making change happen by being safe by tinkering around the edges of incrementalism. If we do not step outside our comfort zones and we do not genuinely encourage entrepreneurial thinking and doing, for our teams and business partners, how will we ever make change happen?

The next time you hit the trough of treacle, are gripped by fear of failure, are told there is no budget or helpfully informed that’s ‘not how we do things here’, put the caution that the 20:2 principle has etched on your bravery back in its gift box. Step outside the box and think, what would you do if you were not afraid. And then do it.

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