Don’t Be Afraid of Risk

Most senior managers agree that taking a risk is important for innovation, but in far too many cases, they don’t act like they believe this. Several years ago, one of us conducted a culture survey on a global organization that considered itself to be highly supportive of developing new products, services and practices. Yet when several 100 professionals were asked what would happen if they developed and tried “new and untested ideas”, only 17% said that such behaviour would be rewarded or approved — 47% said that the reaction from their superiors would be “unpredictable.”

In other words, the reality in many organizations today is that despite the public emphasis on innovation, the underlying culture may be strongly risk-averse. As one senior manager in a large financial institution said (only partially tongue-in-cheek), “The key to success here is to never make the same mistake once.”

Unfortunately, this kind of attitude is anathema to successful innovation, which does indeed require a tolerance for risk-taking and learning from periodic failure. So how can you break out of this mode and create an environment that is more conducive to innovation? In our experience, one of the starting points is to be more explicit about what risk-taking really means, and what is acceptable and what is not. Here are four tactics for doing this:

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