Risk and why it is important for Creativity

Risk is a part of life: something we all live with. Some people are more comfortable with risk, others have no choice. However. I propose that for change, development, creativity and innovation, a level of healthy risk is essential.

Risk and Fear

Risk, however, can bring with it feelings of fear. As I write this I remember reading the book by Susan Jeffers, Feel the fear and do it anyway . It had a very positive effect on me at a time in my life when I was about to leave a full-time job in one country for an uncertain freelance career in another. The fear around risk is that we may fail. However, if we never take a risk, we may never live life at our best.

This fear of failure is prevalent in organisations.  Failure is often punished and the consequences of this is a reluctance to start or try anything new or different. This is detrimental to creativity and innovation. As people and as organisations, without taking a risk, we cannot develop and change. To enable creativity and innovation risk is essential.

Risk and a Creative Culture

Goran Ekvall proposed that there are essential elements of a culture needed to support creativity. This quote from his paper –Organizational Conditions and Levels of Creativity highlights the value of risk-taking. ‘As risktaking and anxiety are ingredients of creative acts, culture elements that make risktaking and failure less threatening and dangerous are promoting of creative behavior, whereas in situations where creative initiatives are met with suspicion, defensiveness and aggression, the fear of failure becomes strong and holds creativity back.’

Charles Handy stated that ‘Experiments may fail, thus forgiveness is essential. Instead of failures, unsuccessful experiments must be viewed as part of the learning process–as lessons learned.’

We all have our own boundaries, or constraints when we consider the level of risk that is acceptable. One difference in level of risk acceptability could be due to the prevailing culture. If we can learn from the mistakes we make when taking risks, then we can change and develop. However, it is almost impossible to learn from mistakes in a blame culture in which people feel threatened and feel bad about mistakes. This undermines self-confidence and leads to a culture of low risk taking.

A learning culture, rather than a blame culture requires an active learning habit.  A leader needs to coach their staff so that they can reflect upon their actions, understand them, learn from them and then build upon them to try something different. In this way people can take responsibility for their actions, take risks, and develop their creativity.

Actions to Take

So, what do we need to put in place for risk to be acceptable?

People need to be competent to understand the level of risk that is acceptable and how to ensure that mistakes are made ‘safely’. Experiment in creativity and innovation is essential when developing ideas, provided that the experimentation is done in a safe way, and the culture is supportive. The risk is then a managed risk. If the experimentation fails, learning can result from it.

To summarise

  • Risk is needed to enable creativity and innovation.
  • To remove the fear of risk, a supporting culture needs to be in place.
  • In organisations this means that leaders must –
    • Develop trust, so that open discussions can be had around level of risk in any situation.
    • Train employees to be able to take risks safely
    • If mistakes are made, coaching and open discussion will enable lessons to be learned.
    • Turn these lessons into learning for the whole organisation.

Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached women and men in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently co-authored a book on creativity for leaders, called Creativity Cycling , with Dr. Tracy Stanley. which covers the process of CPS and techniques that can help challenge assumptions.