looking over the edge

Risk drives much of our behavior at work. 

Engineers are brought up on controlling safety risk, knowledge workers tend to focus on liability risk. 

And we all are affected by reputation risk — the apparent harm of being noticed for something not entirely thought through. I've done it before — clicked "submit" and then felt horribly wrong: a hollow feeling in my stomach, the onset of anxiety — what if someone actually notices this?

And it is beyond the individual: IT ProPortal reported that 44 percent of large business implement information management out of fear of risks and compliance. 

No wonder we all are so careful when it comes to innovation.

You're Holding Back Your Everyday Innovators

We all have the ability to innovate — it's something that can occur through a comprehensive innovation process or through a spontaneous, even serendipitous connection of events. 

So why do so many of us keep our heads down, staying within job parameters, only delivering what's expected? "Expectations!" 

That horrible word that — along with 'should' — really constrain creative, innovative thinkers. The assumed expectations of our peers and management is one of the biggest obstacles to innovation. It's expectations that provide our minds with creative boundaries.

Yet when we are trapped in a corner without an obvious way around that thorny problem we face, we look outside the box. Creative instinct takes over from expectations, our fear of expectation and failure disappears. 

But what do we do then? We go back to business as usual, with risks being waved around everywhere, and the instinct for innovation evaporates as quickly as it formed. It's human to revert to safer ways — getting on without rocking the boat.

We have the innate ability to analyze, to connect and to question. But it all too quickly gets buried deep beneath the exterior of doing what we think we should be doing. The question is, how can we make these skills part of the way we work, to bring the everyday innovator in people?

Innovation Is More Important Than Ever

In today's complex operating environment, maintaining the status quo is no longer an option for professional services providers. More and more we have to respond to sudden change: clients expecting more with less, markets rapid fluctuations, technology moving the goalposts. 

To deal with this, we need to tap into the collective intellectual capital at our disposal, i.e., what our people know. The artifacts that we typically rely on — solutions, technical documents, the normal how-to’s — quickly become out of date and are a nightmare to maintain. It becomes less and less about looking for what is known, and more about fast knowledge movement and rapid experimentation. In this environment, we need more dynamic input, more ideas and more experiences to help decision makers, well, make decisions.

Innovation is more critical than ever. We need to pilot new approaches that haven’t been tried before. But in a culture where innovation is seen as a risk, where people prefer to keep good ideas safely contained in their minds because they are not expected to be innovators, this is problematic.

What Is Innovation Risk?

Put simply, risk is a function of probability and impact. What’s the chance of something happening, and what is the likely impact should it occur? This is embedded in safety plans across the globe. We apply the same to innovation.

Let’s start with an idea. What’s the probability of an idea failing — either not actually working, or not going far? Usually, pretty high. Initial ideas, or concepts not worked through thoroughly are likely to fail. 

But what’s the impact of that idea failing? It’s low — very low. It’s just an idea. But it’s the perception of failure that keeps this idea under wraps. The risk is actually low, but we have a natural inclination to never expose ourselves to any risk at all. 

Getting ideas out there is the start — ideas that actually connect to business problems. I’m not talking about a generic ideas box, or an innovation panel, I’m talking about ideas that propose changes to the way we do work, challenging the status quo. It’s these ideas, whether fully formed or just part-way there, that need to be opened up into business conversations, collaboration spaces and meetings.

Connecting just one half-formed idea to a real need is something too important to risk losing.

To put this in perspective, we might also ask: what is the risk of doing nothing?

Resetting Expectations

If the expectation is there that we shouldn't take a risk, we won't. So we need to set expectations appropriately.

In the absence of none, people will assume that they shouldn't take a risk. And this isn't just for managers: it's for everyone. If we all set the expectation that we want to hear more ideas — in social channels, in conversations, in projects spaces, in team meetings — then the perceived risk drops.

This expectation is more than just wanting more ideas. We need formal permission to get creative, to get away from our assigned tasks and to speak with people outside of our project circles. This needs a form of structure around how we need to work. 

One particular type of structure is through provisioning some allocated time for "non-core" work. This effectively says "we want you to spent time outside of projects, contributing, experimenting and learning." Other mechanisms can include Working Out Loud — where we are encouraged to speak and be heard and can contribute frankly to enterprise social tools. 

These don't just remove the expectation that one shouldn't rock the boat, but give us permission to shake the boat, sink it and rebuild it better than before.

With innovation, we have to fail. It's a crucial step on the journey to continuous reinvention. Finding what doesn't work will help us more clearly identify what does work.

Innovation is a jigsaw puzzle of many different pieces. Putting down the first piece, whether it be an idea or an opportunity, is the most important step. We need to give our people a safe environment to allow them to place the first piece of the puzzle. Not all will get completed, but those that do will encourage more people to open up and place a piece of their own, or the next piece of someone else's.

The bigger risk is not saying or doing anything. To adapt quickly, we need ideas, we need nonconformity.

So with ideas, ask yourself, what’s the risk? Take a chance — it's not a risk. If it doesn’t work — great! Keep going. Others will come.

Title image Greg Rakozy