Innovation Requires an Environment of Creative Risk
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Innovation Entrepreneurship Jul 6, 2024

Innovation Requires an Environment of Creative Risk

If you really want to change paradigms, you must be willing to accept that there is no such thing as true innovation without risk.

inventors bring lightbulbs to a factory

Riley Mann

Early in the corporate innovation classes I teach for business executives at the Kellogg School of Management, I share this provocation:

There’s no such thing as true innovation without risk. If you really want to change paradigms, you must be willing to accept this fact and encourage people to come up with ideas that might make the organization uncomfortable.

When I ask the students if they agree, there’s a lot of head-nodding, but inevitably someone raises their hand and asks, “But how can I make sure we don’t default to our old behavior?” Or some version of this, which could mean anything from sharing only ideas that represent small, incremental changes from the status quo to seeking tacit approval of ideas from the senior-most person there.

That kind of defaultingstifles innovation and creativity, whether you’re working on a new strategy, product, or organizational structure. But avoiding it isn’t easy, as most successful organizations have at least some aversion to risk.

This means leaders must be thoughtful about creating the right conditions for innovation to happen. Again, when I ask executives how they set the stage for innovation in their organizations, many describe the well-known “artifacts of innovation,” such as whiteboards, walls plastered with sticky notes, and the like. But those are exactly that: artifacts and tools of the innovation process, not drivers of it. It’s important not to confuse “innovation theater” with true innovation.

True innovation requires not just the right methods, but the right mindset—one that enables or, better yet, encourages people to offer creative, potentially risky ideas in a forum that encourages and rewards brave conversation. Yes, team psychological safety is important to provide, as countless articles describe.

But it’s more than that. It’s about thoughtfully designing the context for a largely organic process that gets everyone involved and moves expediently from ideas to action. Let’s talk about how to get it right and some of the common pitfalls along the way.

Here are some of the most powerful ways to stimulate and sustain group innovation.

Start with a social contract

Start each innovation-focused meeting not by diving into ideas but by collectively developing a social contract for the discussion itself. When I worked at the design and innovation consultancy IDEO, we began each meeting by generating a list of agreements between participants that went on the wall. The items could be tactical, like “We agree to put away all phones and laptops during the meeting.” But they can-—and should—also be philosophical and values-driven, such as “We agree to assume good intent with any idea offered.” Such agreements create a greater willingness to offer ideas and promote more receptivity to each, even if a given proposal might be anxiety-provoking for some group members. In this way, the social contract is likely to stimulate conversations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Model from the top

Naturally, everyone will take their cues from the most senior participant, even if the social contract encourages ideas from every level. So, it might be tempting for the CEO or other top executive to sit back and wait for others to contribute. Instead, that leader should set the tone and model desired behavior by being the first or among the first to talk and intentionally putting a risky or vulnerable-sounding idea on the table: “This may sound a little out there, but what if we….” That will instantly encourage others to do the same, opening up the group in a big way.

True innovation requires not just the right methods, but the right mindset—one that enables or, better yet, encourages people to offer creative, potentially risky ideas in a forum that encourages and rewards brave conversation.

David Schonthal

Move from idea to action

Ideas on a whiteboard aren’t enough. Find a practical way to synthesize key outputs from the meeting that lead to action. In most cases, this involves saving meaningful time at the meeting’s end for actionable next steps. What’s our top priority among these ideas? What is the fastest way we might test whether it’s worth pursuing? What key performance indicators will we track along the way? Who should be involved in the next steps? Ask—and answer—those types of questions to move from ideas to action.

Have fun

Productive ideation meetings should invoke a sense of play, often supported by humor. It might be opening the discussion with a warmup prompt, like “How many different uses can we think of for a pair of shoelaces (the more playful the better)?” That puts people in the right headspace to think freely and loosens the group up for what should be a fun collaboration.

Mind the “peak end” rule

How do too many meetings end? By running out of time. That’s far from ideal, as research shows what people remember most from any interaction are the emotional highpoint and the end—the Peak End rule. So, conclude with a bang, not a whimper. As noted above, a great way to end is to synthesize key points and discuss actionable next steps. Or you can vote on ideas through dot-voting or some other means to see where the “heat” is among the ideas generated. It may even make sense to return to the agreement and make sure the items were followed—especially if it seems like they weren’t—for an even more productive next meeting.

While following those tips, it’s important to watch out for these potential derailers.

Do you even want to go there?

Most everyone endorses the value of innovation, but in some cases, it’s just lip service. So be honest about whether you want to get people thinking differently or are engaging mostly in innovation theater. You need to have a different kind of meeting to get a different kind of result, but senior leaders sometimes “dress up” their own sales pitches or pet projects in the form of a brainstorming session. That’s not the best use of the team’s time—or yours.

Beware the loudest voices

In any meeting, the louder voices will tend to dominate, potentially squelching high-quality ideas from more reticent members. To avoid that, consider using brainwriting instead of brainstorming, by asking everyone to share ideas on paper at the start. Everyone has to share something. This shouldn’t be anonymous, to ensure people stand behind their ideas and get credit for them.

Be careful with psychological safety

Of course, any group environment must feel safe and respectful. However, overemphasizing psychological safety can lead to excessive comfort and complacency—the enemy of disruptive innovation. The goal of any innovative effort is to provoke creative tension. The best ideas are born out of some disagreement, or what well-known investor Ray Dalio calls an “idea meritocracy,” where the best proposals “win.” Your team’s social contract should lay the groundwork for handling this respectfully, such as the idea noted earlier to assume good intent in any idea offered, among other possible approaches.

Innovation doesn’t just happen when creativity strikes. It’s the product of a thoughtful approach to getting people together and inspired, including the ideas here. Think about how you’ve been going about innovation, and try to implement these tips. If even the thought of it evokes a little anxiety, you’re on the right track!


This article originally appeared in Inc.

Featured Faculty

Clinical Professor of Strategy; Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at Kellogg; Faculty Director of the Zell Fellows Program; Director of the Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice

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