It seems like every leader today is advocating for more innovation in their organization. That being said, a research study at my son’s high school found that students are extremely cautious and make “safe” choices in order to position themselves as quality candidates for University selection. I discussed this with the principal of the school and he corroborated my concern that our youth are risk-averse. Students face enormous pressure to obtain good grades and move on to reputable universities where admissions criteria favor GPA (grades) more than courageous, innovative thinking. This pressure to be risk-averse is completely at odds with the desire of modern-day Executives to have more innovative thinking in the workplace. The gap between desired and actual is significant. If our youth are learning to avoid risks, how will we teach them to take calculated risks and be creative? How are we going to build a new generation of agile and innovative leaders? Currently, I’m seeing troubling behaviour in several organizations I work with. Leaders are:
  • Blaming others—particularly when a project fails
  • Questioning—from an interrogative manner versus curious/coaching/supportive questioning
  • Making careful choices—versus bold ones
  • Spinning messaging to suggest “everything is going just fine” even when there are important issues impacting a project’s success
  • Saying no to anything that does not have a predictable result
  • Dragging feet in their decision making
Interestingly, these behaviours are sometimes in complete contrast with the very thing these leaders are asking for: “try something new, we need a change, we need to be progressive.” This is not simple to shift given fear of failure and anticipation of negative consequences if they fail. So how do we encourage and promote innovative thinking and action amongst our leaders? It needs to start with a shift in mindset and beliefs from “failure is bad” to “failing is not a bad thing”; “failure is part of learning;” and “failure is part of the drive for progress.” Organizations need to create environments where leaders and employees are encouraged and have the ability to make calculated risks and ultimately, build their innovation skill, capacity for change, and comfort with ambiguity. Establishing a “learning lab” (i.e., R&D) environment allows for experimentation and begins to shift the dominant culture of risk aversion to one that is more open and willing to experiment. Giving permission to push the envelope, question status quo and try things differently is the way to build a more flexible and adaptive culture. Consider creating an organizational culture that:
  • Promotes curiosity, inquiry & reflection
  • Encourages learning
  • Encourages alternative thinking
  • Encourages comfort with ambiguity
  • Encourages experimentation as participants search for successful solutions
This can be done through prototyping which research has shown mitigates risks and allows for building on lessons learned—both successes and failures. Rather than jumping head on to building an innovative culture, consider creating smaller R&D type lab environments that encourage prototyping, pushing the envelope, double loop learning and building capacity around taking calculated risks. Debrief, learn, adapt and eventually, in time, expand this ‘lab environment’ across your organization to be the culture you all work in.

31 Responses

  1. I agree with your findings. It feels like the stakes are higher for youth today. Part of the purpose of school should be to find things of interest. Yet today, students feel such pressure that conforming seems the only way. That being said, having discussed with my teenage daughter this article, she points out that even regular school life is risky, and I understand her point. Anyway the question that I have is how do we calculate risk? I’d love to have an answer for my daughter.

    1. I love that you shared this with your daughter. Good question about calculating risk….not sure I have an answer to that – will take time to reflect for sure 🙂 Thanks for your input on this – really appreciate you taking the time.

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