Risk is an Imperative for Sustainable Innovation

No Risk No Innovation

Risk is an Imperative for Sustainable InnovationOver five thousand failures for just one success:  When Thomas Edison discovered the light bulb it took him 5,999 tries to get it right. Edison is quoted as saying, “Every wrong attempt discarded is a step forward.”

Of the ten imperatives to Roberts Rules of Innovation, “No Risk… No Innovation” is arguably one of the most important. There are many possible roads to innovation, and unfortunately many of them lead to a dead end. Successful innovation means defining your own road, and learning to celebrate the wrong turns that ultimately lead to victory. It is inevitable that every success sees failures along the way. Sustainable innovation requires a strategy from start to finish, and an acceptance (if not celebration), of failure.

An effective innovation leader should encourage well-reasoned creativity and risk taking, while also practicing tolerance for failure. Fear of failure is an innovation killer, so let your team feel safe to fail, but empower them to do their best work.  Clearly communicate the risk profile you are asking your people to adopt and state why it is important to the organization’s success. Know your tolerance for risk and failure in the pursuit of innovation. The key to effective risk taking is to make failure a “learning experience”.

It is a known fact that as humans we are innately risk averse. Nobel Prize winner and  behavioral economics pioneer Daniel Kahneman explains in his bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, that when we compare losses and gains, we are evolutionarily wired to weigh losses more heavily. Like many innovators, you may find yourself struggling to innovate in a decidedly uncertain business arena.

According to Tory Higgins, professor of psychology and director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University, people are wired in one of two ways. We either see our goals as opportunities to maintain the status quo (prevention-focused) or we see our goals as opportunities to make progress and end up better off (promotion-focused). Prevention focused individuals are associated with a “robust aversion to making mistakes and taking chances”. Promotion focused individuals are motivated to make risky choices if they hold the potential for profitable gains.

Using Higgins’s model:

Promotion-focused people

  • work quickly
  • consider lots of alternatives and are great barnstormer’s
  • are open to new opportunities
  • are optimists
  • plan only for best-case scenarios
  • seek positive feedback and lose steam without it
  • feel dejected or depressed when things go wrong

Prevention-focused people

  • work slowly and deliberately
  • tend to be accurate
  • are prepared for the worst
  • are stressed by short deadlines
  • stick to tried-and-true ways of doing things
  • are uncomfortable with praise or optimism
  • feel worried or anxious when things go wrong

Understanding what motivates your team can help you make innovation a sustainable and repeatable process, and can lessen the aversion to risk. Team members need to be trained and coached to constantly improve their skill set, and this attitude should be continuously reinforced. Develop it step-by-step by building consensus, reinforcing ideas, underscoring the need for accountability, and asking the right questions.

Robert’s Rules of Innovation gives ten imperatives to create and sustain innovation. They are:

  1. Inspire
  2. No Risk No Innovation
  3. New Product Development Process
  4. Ownership
  5. Value Creation
  6. Accountability
  7. Training and Coaching
  8. Idea Management
  9. Observe and Measure
  10. Net Result Net Reward

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In his Innovate to Thrive andResults Driven Innovation Robert Brands shares the secrets of his ten rules of innovation. You will learn how to continually create and sustain the innovative concepts your business needs to stay ahead in the game. Connect with Robert on www.innovationcoach.com to learn more.

Robert F Brands




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  1. Don Creswell on August 11, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    Risk-taking is an essential element of innovation. However, the extent ot risk needs to be bounded in some way. Using the tools of “decision anaylsis” one can get a grip on the impact of uncertainty (very high in innovation where 80-90% of project/product fail, according to many studies) on critical variables. This is the rationale for developing an innovation portfolio; some will win – some will lose but over the long-haul, a well-balanced portfolio will produce greater value. As for learning throughout the process: definitely. We created, with HP, the “Bird Model” that reflects an iterative process from ideation through formulation through agile learning and re-formulation (agile) to create successful opportunities for the bird, which started out searching for a nest, laying a bunch of eggs, hatching, developing as a fledgling, learning to fly and ultimately soaring.

    Ref: https://smartorg.com/2012/08/how-to-make-innovation-soar-the-bird-model/

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