Risk is an Imperative for Sustainable Innovation


Over five thousand failures for just one success:  When Thomas Edison discovered the light bulb it took him 5999 tries to get it right.  Edison is quoted as saying, “Every wrong attempt discarded is a step forward.”

Of the ten imperatives to Roberts Rules of Innovation, “No Risk… No Innovation” is arguably one of the most important. There are many possible roads to innovation, and unfortunately many of them lead to a dead end. Successful innovation means defining your own road, and learning to celebrate the wrong turns that ultimately lead to victory. It is inevitable that every success sees failures along the way. Sustainable innovation requires a strategy from start to finish, and an acceptance (if not celebration), of failure.

An effective innovation leader should encourage well-reasoned creativity and risk taking, while also practicing tolerance for failure. Fear of failure is an innovation killer, so let your team feel safe to fail, but empower them to do their best work.  Clearly communicate the risk profile you are asking your people to adopt and state why it is important to the organization’s success. Know your tolerance for risk and failure in the pursuit of innovation. The key to effective risk taking is to make failure a “learning experience”.

It is a known fact that as humans we are innately risk averse. Nobel Prize winner and  behavioral economics pioneer Daniel Kahneman  explains in his bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, that when we compare losses and gains, we are evolutionarily wired to weigh losses more heavily. Like many innovators, you may find yourself struggling to innovate in a decidedly uncertain business arena.

According to Tory Higgins, professor of psychology and director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University, people are wired in one of two ways. We either see our goals as opportunities to maintain the status quo (prevention-focused) or we see our goals as opportunities to make progress and end up better off (promotion-focused). Prevention focused individuals are associated with a “robust aversion to making mistakes and taking chances”. Promotion focused individuals are motivated to make risky choices if they hold the potential for profitable gains.

Using Higgins’s model:

Promotion-focused people

  • work quickly
  • consider lots of alternatives and are great barnstormer’s
  • are open to new opportunities
  • are optimists
  • plan only for best-case scenarios
  • seek positive feedback and lose steam without it
  • feel dejected or depressed when things go wrong


 Prevention-focused people

  • work slowly and deliberately
  • tend to be accurate
  • are prepared for the worst
  • are stressed by short deadlines
  • stick to tried-and-true ways of doing things
  • are uncomfortable with praise or optimism
  • feel worried or anxious when things go wrong


Understanding what motivates your team can help you make innovation a sustainable and repeatable process, and can lessen the aversion to risk. Team members need to be trained and coached to constantly improve their skill set, and this attitude should be continuously reinforced. Develop it step-by-step by building consensus, reinforcing ideas, underscoring the need for accountability, and asking the right questions.

Robert’s Rules of Innovation give 10 imperatives to create and sustain innovation. They are: Inspire, No Risk No Innovation, New Product Development Process, Ownership, Value Creation, Accountability, Training and Coaching, Idea Management, Observe and Measure, and Net Result Net Reward.

For more tips on how to apply each of the imperatives, see “Robert’s Rules of Innovation: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival.”