All Articles Leadership Strategy Leading innovation requires creative risk taking

Leading innovation requires creative risk taking

3 min read


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

At its core, innovation needs 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.

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 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 possess and others lack; it’s a skill that some have learned early and some need to develop. All people have the capacity to be creative; they just need the right environment.

But being creative in a competitive world 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 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.

David Burkus is a professor of management at Oral Roberts University and editor of LeaderLab, an online think tank that offers insights from research on leadership, innovation and strategy.