Why Leaders Should Encourage Creative Risks

Why Leaders Should Encourage Creative Risks

Business May 22, 2012 / By David Burkus
Why Leaders Should Encourage Creative Risks

Research suggests that psychological safety and the willingness to take risks are potent antecedents to creative insight.

It seems like the world is changing at an increasing pace. In order to stay competitive, many organizations are placing their bets on enhancing their innovation. It’s a worthwhile pursuit. Innovative organizations stand the best chance of developing a sustained competitive advantage in their industry. In order to achieve that competitive advantage, firms are asking how they can be more innovative.

At its core, innovation requires creativity. Innovative organizations are those with individuals who generate novel and useful ideas (the consensus definition of creativity). To put it another way: creativity yields innovation. If you want your organization to be more innovative – you need your people to be more creative.

But for many leaders, just how to increase their people’s creativity is a mystery.

In a recent survey of business executives, ECSI found that 68% believed innovation and creativity to be something individuals are born with. These business leaders felt strongly that innovators cannot be made, that creativity cannot be trained. However, their beliefs aren’t exactly supported by empirical research. As early as 1973, studies on identical twins sought to distinguish whether creative ability was attributable to nature or nurture. The evidence supports that being creative isn’t a trait that some people posses and others lack; it’s a skill that some have learned early and some still need time and training to develop. Everyone has the capacity to be creative; they just need the right environment.

But being creative in a competitive environment is risky. Proposing ideas you hope are novel and useful inevitably leads to judgment. Organizations have to judge ideas because resources are scarce; some ideas will soar and others will flop. It would be helpful if we could know which ones will soar before we invest too much money in them. Many managers feel that evaluating these ideas and comparing them to the norm is part of the job. Creative ideas get judged and most often killed long before they reach the top. Perhaps this is why those senior leaders surveyed by ECSI believe innovators were born.

However, the most innovative organizations – the ones that seem to attract the most creative people and launch the most creative products and services – are the ones who delay this judgment and who encourage their people to take the creative risk. And the evidence supports it. Research on teams of R&D personnel showed that willingness to take risks is a potent influence of creative expression. Innovative organizations give their people the resources to play and experiment with new ideas. They give them time the to pursue projects whose tangible value is still unknown. They even celebrate when those projects result in spectacular and enlightening failure.

There are risks to these methods. These companies risk the time that might be wasted or money invested without realizing a return. The belief these organizations share, perhaps the belief that makes them innovative, is that these risks are worth the potential reward.

If you want to increase innovation, you must first consider what your organization is doing to encourage creative risks.

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