Risk-taking and creativity – creative element #36

The relationship between risk-taking and creativity features in the chapter on how to create a culture where creativity can thrive in my new book, In Your Creative Element, The Formula for Creative Success.

“Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur.” Ed Catmull, President Pixar and Disney Studios

The risk-taking element is one that many of us intellectually understand the idea of in relation to generating new ideas, but when it comes to practically doing it quite often we fail to see it through or even try – because many workplaces simply don’t tolerate failure. For most people risk-taking or failing is not part of their job description – and with good reason. If we’re in someone else’s employ we get paid to be conscientious – to turn up and leave on time, to focus on the tasks at hand and to act responsibly with the company resources.

Yet creativity thrives in situations where boundaries can be pushed, rules can be broken and experiments can take place. So how to manage this tension?

I interviewed Harry Dromey on this subject for my book – he was bookmaker Paddy Power’s Mischief Maker – a company renowned for their daring and sometimes risky marketing campaigns. Under Harry’s tenure in order to drive bets, the brand hijacked sporting events creating headlines across the world’s media. Stunts and pranks spared no-one and involved Stephen Hawking, the Vatican, illegal immigrants and the Amazon rainforest. Despite being a listed company the brand admits to a ‘tongue-in-cheek attitude’ to marketing. Harry is now Group Marketing Manager at Channel 4. I spoke to him about provoking controversy, tearing up the rulebook and taking risks. He told me:

“The riskiest thing is to be boring. You need an element of risk to make great creative work. You also need to foster a culture, the right atmosphere and the attitude. Things get lost to consumers if messaging is bland.

Of course, we don’t all necessarily work for companies who are prepared to, or want to tear up the rule book, but taking risks can offer competitive advantages. Businesses use different models to mitigate risk: Coca Cola, for example, are one of the many companies to have made use of the 70:20:10 model, where the 70 applies to the low-risk bread-and-butter work, the 20 is applicable to slightly edgier middle ground, and the last 10 per cent is given over to more radical thinking.

Is this something your team could introduce, with the “unknown, riskiest” 10 per cent reserved for more risk-friendly stakeholders or clients, or for a small chunk of the work or budget you do on a bigger project? Ask also how the team – and management – could better cope with failure, so that risky ideas will be more forthcoming. Not all risky ideas are great ideas or vice versa, of course – but you’ll have more to play with if you allow some of them in.

I love what actor Denzel Washington has to say about risk-taking in his commencement speech to new graduates. He said “It’s about knowing what you know and what you don’t know. It’s about being open to people and ideas. And I can’t think of a better message as we send you off today, to not only take risks, but to be open to life, to accept new views and to be open to new opinions…While it may be frightening, it will also be rewarding because the chances you take, the people you meet, the people you love, the faith that you have that’s what’s going to define you.”

In Your Creative Element
Informed by academic research, interviews and 20 years at the sharp end of corporate life, my new book identifies 62 Creative Elements for creativity in business. Read more about how risk-taking and creativity and how manage risk for competitive advantage – In Your Creative Element, The Formula for Creative Success in Business is published by Kogan Page and available at Koganpage.com and Amazon.co.uk

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