June 20, 2018

Risks and safety: two sides of innovation

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When I recently cut a slice of brown bread for breakfast, I discovered a white blob in the middle. Strange. Yet I ate it, and you know what? I did not die. Seriously, I didn’t even get sick.

We really need to be ok with having more white blobs when innovating.

When working with teams on new ideas, especially in established organisations, people are often worried about negative impacts if things won’t work out as expected. What will be the impact on our brand image? What will be the financial consequences?

For example, when we decided to organise the (first) BA & Beyond conference, we did not have the budget to get multiple well known speakers that we knew would deliver a quality talk. Working with a call for speakers was a more feasible, but also a more risky approach. What if the number or quality of proposals was not good? What if the audience would get the feeling they’ve paid good money for bad content?

Since innovation is about doing new things, there will always be a level of uncertainty, and you’ll always have this kind of concerns.

Opportunity and risk come in pairs
— Bangambiki Habyarimana

How can you deal with these concerns?

Acknowledge risks, but put them in perspective

Yes, the risks are real. However, if you wait until you’re sure about everything, you’ll probably be too late. Ask yourself: are these risks really that big? Often, how we feel about them (emotionally) is an exaggeration of the real risk (rationally).

Suppose our BA & Beyond call for speakers had had a miserable result, and we would have had to cancel the entire event. My ego would have taken a hit, sure, but my personal brand? How badly would it impact your view on me? That’s the impact I should really care about.

Maybe the baker would feel bad about the white blob in his brown bread, but the impact is probably limited to a smile or a frown.

Build in a safety net

Understanding and ignoring your emotions is far from easy. A complementary approach to deal with (real or perceived) risks, is to build in some safety. For the conference, we could have opted for anything between a two day event and an evening seminar, depending on the number and quality of speaking proposals. It was not all or nothing. We did not have to decide on the event format up front. That was our safety net.

This does require an important shift in mindset. Instead of stating “This is not safe!” when considering a potential risk, a better, positive question is “How can we make this safe?”

Some ideas (and I’m sure you’ll have more):

  • You can start with an internal try-out, thereby preventing external impact.
  • You can focus an experiment on a smaller target audience that is more open to “crazy ideas”, thereby minimising negative reactions and containing the reach of the risk’s impact.
  • You can think of a plan B, or a staged approach, like we did for our conference.
  • You can reduce your scope and try out smaller “risks”.

As a team goes through more experiments, they’ll get more comfortable with risk and become more creative with finding good safety nets, without stifling innovation. Even with safety nets in place, though, risks may (or perhaps even should) sometimes cause less welcome impact. Just remind yourself that this is part of the learning process.

Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.
— T. S. Eliot

How safe do you want to play, and what’s your favourite safety net?


  • BA & Beyond Conference
  • Sociocracy 3.0 uses “Is it good enough for now and safe enough to try?” as a check point.
  • In their book “Playing to win“, A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin also propose to ask “What would have to be true?” instead of “Why wouldn’t it work?”
  • “The real story of risk” by Glenn Croston offers some interesting insights in how we humans perceive and deal with risk.

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