Taking Risks - The Genesis Of Innovation

Looking at my career I've taken my fair share of risks and have gotten rewarded for some great successes because of those risks. I've also failed after taking on some risky ideas, but in the end learned more from the failure and ended up encouraging me to take on even more risks. Taking my first risk was the hardest risk to take, moving to San Francisco from Chicago made me doubt my abilities to take on a start up team but it ended up defining who I am as a professional and made me grow personally exponentially more than I would have had I stayed where it was comfortable. This set on a chain reaction in my career of venturing into the unknown without a definitive payout and evangelizing the expectation of success. 

Taking a true risk is taking an idea and leading it into uncharted territory where failure is just as likely as success. The trade off is that the success you can achieve in taking on a true risk far outweighs staying in a situation that is comfortable. 

I watch a lot of dog training shows where "The Dog Whisperer" speaks about the importance of rewarding good behavior and disciplining (crate training) for bad behavior and being consistent with the rules. But what happens when the consequences are random or contradictory, i.e. when the same behavior sometimes is rewarded and sometimes punished? The answer is that the dogs become stressed and confused, and start to take no actions at all. In other words, they stop taking risks, which is the safest possible behavior.

I see this dynamic all of the time with managers, both externally and internally, where everyone genuinely wants innovation, they simultaneously wanted to remain in control of what they are comfortable with. You can see this in the work force, where the few innovators are recognized and rewarded for innovation, many others are stuck in their current role or even laid off because of stagnation. Similar to a dog, managers and employees are anxious about the consequences of failure and feel more comfortable with doing what they’ve always done, how they’ve always done it, reaping the same results while remaining envious of their peers or competitors experiencing great successes.

This behavior inevitably creates a self-defeating pattern. If the company or the manager doesn’t create an environment where people can take risks and occasionally fail, then innovation will be stifled. If innovation doesn’t occur, the company won’t grow, the team won’t succeed past expectations and result in cutting costs to survive. This environment will create anxiety to the point that the cycle will repeat until the fear of failing will end up hindering progress to a point that failure is inevitable.

The unfortunate part about this, is that this pattern is more common than the companies and teams taking risks and experiencing high watermarks. There is a mixed message in saying that you need to grow while also saying we need to cut costs. This leaves employees confused, stressed, anxious and risk-averse. The reality a lot of employees have had in the last few years is that they are risk-averse because of their perception of a failing economy will leave them unemployed if they put their jobs in jeopardy.

 What can you do as a manager to create an environment that fosters innovation as opposed to stifling it?

1) Evaluate. Look at your company, your team and assess the level in which people are avoiding risks in their current position. Utilize ways to gauge the overall feeling of your employees by giving anonymous surveys, meetings or one on one to find out if people are holding back ideas and are caught up in the fear of failing. If it’s happening, talk about how you can improve and what you can learn from their innovations and risks as well as how it can propel their career forward. Everyone wants a vision of being greater than they currently are – it’s even more powerful if that vision is shared.

2) Encourage Ideas and Sharing. If you create an environment that is safe for an employee to share ideas, concerns or feedback without fear of retribution or a negative impression people will start looking for ways to improve the company or team. They all talk about what needs improvement as it is, you might as well make it constructive for you. Encouraging the use of social media is great for this as its general principle rests on the mantra of sharing ideas to make the community better. The key is to make it comfortable for people to share their ideas, once they are on the table you can choose the most effective ones to implement.

3) Experiment and commit. Take a chance on some ideas and commit to them for a 90 day period. If at day 91 the idea is not working, accept that the idea failed and move forward. But don’t be one of those managers who says they’re trying the new idea but not committing to it – your team will see through this and will backfire to a point where you’re worse off for even saying you’re doing it. Make it explicit that failure is acceptable as long as there was something that was learned. You learn more in failure than you do in success.

 Employees need to be rewarded and reinforced for taking risks, but don’t give mixed message on whether or not it’s acceptable. If you want more risk taking, reduce the conflicting signals and create an environment where the benefits of taking a risk outweigh the fear of failure.

I’d like some stories that you have implemented as a manager or individual that have encouraged risk taking and have avoided the fear of failing. What have you done in your career to take risks on your own and encourage your employees to take risks as well? As a company we've recently promoted a number of people to take on start up offices in Philly and San Jose as well as start up teams in NYC and San Jose, all of those individuals are taking on risk and committing to idea of progressing themselves because of it. I'd like to hear from those individuals as they are in the middle of risk taking themselves. 

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