Creativity and Risk

Martin looked at his computer screen – he had been carefully drafting an email to his boss with a new idea, but was hesitant to push send. His boss, John, was known for being somewhat risk averse. New ideas were often rejected, with dismissive comments such as:

  • We tried that once a while ago, and it didn’t work. Let’s not go there again.
  • Let’s keep things in our own swim lane – OK?
  • Whoa – let’s keep it real. No need to be all “out there” with this.
  • Let’s color inside the lines, people.

Boss John may not realize it, but his offhand comments have discouraged creativity in his employee. For creative workplaces to thrive, employees need to feel safe to express and test new ideas – understanding that not all ideas will lead to productive outcomes, and may even create the dreaded cost of inefficiency.

For managers who are new to establishing a safe environment for creativity, here are two techniques to help promote creativity in the workplace:

  • Build in time for openness. In individual and team meetings, leave time to ask open-ended questions that spark new ideas. Examples of good ones: “What new ideas do people have?” “Let’s get some new perspectives on the table.” “Let’s consider other ways of thinking about this problem.” THEN, wait for staff to engage. Here’s the hard part: no matter what the response, demonstrate interest and receptiveness. Instead of rejecting an idea as unrealistic, say: “Interesting idea, Martin! How could we carry that forward?” or “That’s a great new idea – let’s play with that one and see where it could lead.” In both cases, you are not accepting the creative idea as the solution, but you are opening the door to creative problem-solving.
  • Recognize and overtly acknowledge the value of positive risk outcomes. Many organizations see risk as something to be feared or avoided – forgetting that risks can easily lead to positive outcomes as well as negative ones. When discussing risks, evaluate what good outcome might occur, as well as what bad ones might. This model will encourage people to think creatively in a positive way.

Supporting creative ideas and training others to think creatively when time is short and risks are high takes discipline – just remember, the next creative idea may be the one that moves the whole organization forward.