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Playing with Fire: Innovation is Risky Business

Playing with Fire: Innovation is Risky Business


  Innovation is an iterative effort to figure out the best way to do something. Failure in that process isn’t epic; it’s normal.

 What might it have been like to be the person who discovered fire, arguably one of the greatest innovations in our human history? My bet is, the idea was greeted pretty much in the same way most new ideas are.

With skepticism.

Imagine if you will: Perhaps fire resulted from an accident— lightning struck a tree on a rainy, chilly night. While no doubt startled and scared, people got past that quickly that when they recognized the benefits—namely warmth. Adoption was easy.

Or perhaps someone had an idea and experimented until he or she was able to create fire on demand. The response of the cave community may have been familiar to any fellow innovator: fear, disbelief, suspicion, resistance, anger. The naysayers pronounced there was no need for this fire thing; cooked meat was simply the idea du jour—surely a passing fad—and staying warm was over-rated. People would go back to their old ways.

The pushback may have forced the innovator to question the wisdom of persisting with the experiment. What if after all this work to bring the community along, the idea failed?

Regardless of how fire first came about, there must have been someone (or someones) in the community who saw an opportunity, who took a risk, persevered, overcame failure — and changed the trajectory of humankind.

Why Is Innovation So Difficult?

When we are innovating, we are experimenting. Experiments don’t always lead to immediate success. In fact, experiments tend to show us more about what doesn’t work than what does. Failure is part of the innovation process; in our desire to do something new, we learn a lot about what not to do and we fail at being successful. Imagine the piles of charred and discarded twigs the first fire makers must have amassed, not to mention the burnt fingers!

Thus, innovation is risky business. It is a quest towards change, a challenge to status quo, a desire to do something new and different with the intention of creating value.

Because innovation represents something new and involves experimentation, a move towards innovation means stepping into a vague and uncertain future. While we may know where we want to go, we have no control over how it unfolds and we certainly don’t have any guarantees around whether we’ll get there. Ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty are part of the terrain—which makes innovation uncomfortable.  As a result, most organizations prefer to take a path that avoids or mitigates risk, one that keeps them in their comfort zone where best practices, stability, and “doing this well” are highly valued.

When we fail at innovation, it simply means we haven’t yet learned how to be successful.

A Mindset for Innovation

So, how do we accept the risk, step out of our comfort zone, move past what we know has always worked, accept the possibility of failure, and experiment with something new?

In short, how do we innovate?

With courage, conviction and an acceptance of risk.

Rather than viewing risk-taking as a step into the abyss from which there is no return, we can embrace an attitude that says, “It’s okay to do something different, to take risks, as long as we are mindful as the process unfolds and deliberately take the time to reflect on what we’re learning in the process.”

Creating an organizational culture that has a mindset for innovation starts with understanding there is risk in everything we do, that it’s okay to fail, and that ambiguity is inherent to innovation.

There’s Risk in Everything We Do

In a risk-avoiding climate there is a cautious, hesitant mentality. People try to be on the “safe side.”’ They prefer to “sleep on the matter.” They set up committees and they cover themselves in many ways before making a decision. Risk-averse organizations leave little space for experimenting and have a low tolerance for failing—and they may find themselves in trouble. According to McKinsey & Company, “When risk aversion holds sway, underinvestment in strategic opportunities and sluggish responses to quick-changing customer needs and market dynamics can be the result.”[i]

In an environment that accepts risk-taking, bold new initiatives are encouraged even when the outcomes are unknown. When an organizational culture has a mindset for innovation, people feel as though they can “take a gamble” on some of their ideas and will often “go out on a limb” to be the first to put an idea forward.

It’s Okay to Fail

Second, we must reframe our concept of failure when it comes to innovation.

Failure has a bad rap. You say the word “failure” and immediately people imagine a catastrophic demise. Innovation is an iterative effort to figure out the best way to do something. Failure in that process isn’t epic, it’s normal, and we need to be comfortable with it.  When we fail at innovation, it simply means we haven’t yet learned how to be successful.

The unfortunate thing is that success gets all the glory—no one wants to speak about how they failed, and everyone wants to talk up their success.

When you stop to think about it, there’s little you’ve ever done that you didn’t do through trial and error. Achieving success in learning to walk, tying your shoelaces, or riding a bike involved some uncomfortable failures. Organizational cultures that embrace a mindset for innovation understand that failure is a natural part of the process of learning how to do something new and reaching a successful outcome.

Ambiguity Is Inherent to Innovation

Finally, we must teach people to be comfortable with ambiguity and to appreciate the process of discovery. There will always be ambiguities; there are no safe bets in innovation. Moving forward when innovating means we accept that we don’t have all the answers and understand that we’ll know more as we move through the process of experimentation. In an organization that embodies a mindset for innovation, people can deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, stay open to discovery, and avoid leaping to conclusions.

A Practice for Learning

Critical to innovation is having the discipline to develop a practice for learning. You can’t do innovation without risk and reflective practice—learning from failure. Paradoxically, no learning or change happens if you do not create and take the opportunity to experiment. So, one must experiment in order to learn, and must reflect on that learning in order to move towards success.

Part of taking a risk is recognizing that we don’t have to have it all figured out at the beginning. It’s okay to take tiny steps. Know that you only have to go so far before you can stop and assess. Get feedback from the actions you have taken, and then, with that learning in mind, make adjustments to your strategy and move forward.

Take risks, reflect, learn from them, and use that learning to move yourself closer to success. With this discipline, we make it safer to take the risk inherent to innovation.

How to Adopt a Mindset for Innovation in Your Organization

Bringing innovation into an existing organizational culture involves three steps.

  1. First, connect individuals to their own creativity. Creativity fuels innovation. Connecting individuals to their own creativity—and by this I mean creative thinking and behaviours, not paint brushes—teaches them how they prefer to engage in creative thinking and how they can use these preferences to achieve innovation.
  2. Next, teach creative problem solving as a process for innovation and allow individuals to practice using it as part of a team. Innovation is a team sport and like any sport, the best teams reach their goals when they learn how to play well together.
  3. Finally, put the team to work on innovation projects within the organization. Like our original fire starters, they most likely will run up against obstacles, naysayers, and a resistance to doing things differently. They may even fail. But together, by building in a discipline of reflection on what they have learned, the team members build up resilience to failure. The organization learns from the experience of how to integrate and applaud innovation. Slowly the culture of the organization shifts, and the organization learns to demonstrate that it’s safe for its employees to take risks. Check out our Taking the Risk on Innovation offering and our case study of a client who did. 

“Safe” doesn’t mean fail-safe; it means safe to experiment and learn from what happens for the good of our work and the good of each other.

Much like we have made it safe to build a fire in our homes, we can make it safe to innovate in our organizations. Give yourself permission to take a chance, experiment, learn from your failures, and try again.


[i] Goran, J., LaBerge, L. and Srinivasan, R. (July, 2017). Culture for a Digital Age. McKinsey Quarterly.

Let us help you overcome the risk and ambiguity in innovation.

About BridgePoint Effect

BridgePoint Effect is an organizational development and innovation strategy firm dedicated to helping organizations thrive through change and innovate to create value. We serve courageous leaders who want to inspire and equip their teams to change, innovate, collaborate and think better together. Our goal is to make it easier for individuals and teams to contribute results for their organization.






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