Blend risk-averse and risk-tolerant talent for more effective innovation


Photo: Adobe Stock. Fear inhibits innovation. We all know this from our first days of school and the playground, where conformity feels safe and only the bravest dare stands out too much with a different outlook.


A McKinsey article released in June addressed the way that same fear – albeit the more grownup fear of uncertainty, criticism, and negative impacts on a career – can constrain innovative initiatives. A tendency to play it safe is what “status quo” is all about.


“Eighty-five percent of executives we recently polled agree that fear holds back innovation efforts often or always in their organizations.” – Laura Furstenthal, Alex Morris, and Erik Roth writing in “Fear factor: Overcoming human barriers to innovation”


McKinsey makes a case for instilling a culture of innovation to help allay fear with a corporate emphasis and incentives for innovating:

“Leading innovators are much more successful at alleviating these career concerns by making innovation an explicit requirement of professional success. For example, these companies are 2.9 times more likely than average and lagging innovators to expect executives to demonstrate innovation initiative to advance.”


This resonates with the work of Idea Connection Systems. “Organizational culture itself can prevent ideas from reaching fruition. This is yet another area where a holistic assessment like the Innovation Strengths Preference Indicator® (ISPI™) makes an impact,” said Bob Rosenfeld, Idea Connection Systems founder, and president. “People are far less likely to risk sharing ideas in the absence of trust and support. This is further compounded by the likelihood of punishment for failures in a risk-averse environment. Culture can easily evoke feelings of coldness, unreceptively, consciousness of rank, and competitiveness. The physical and emotional environment contributes to or detracts from the number of participants in the innovation process within the organization.”


You can’t just declare a new culture


Yet, top-down directives to “always be innovating” aren’t enough because you’ll never get everyone on your team to be equally comfortable with fear. And we know that it’s inadvisable to simply pack your team with highly risk tolerant employees.


We’ve found that too many risk-takers on a team can be a liability to innovation as much as having a room full of risk avoiders. We’ve learned that all people create and innovate. And everyone sees risk in their own way. We want to maximize the talents of the risk avoiders, they are great at sustaining, implementation, and optimization. We also want to maximize the talents of the risk takers; they are great at pushing the organization into new spaces. Those that can see both sides of the equation, the connectors, their talents also need to be maximized. How an organization leverages the different risk preferences is key to making innovation happen across the spectrum.


“It is vital to involve as many individuals as possible to unleash the creativity available within all people inside of organizations: otherwise, survival of the organization is at risk,” said Rosenfeld. “Each person has a different level of receptivity, comfort, and ease in each culture.

“The challenge is to create an environment—both physical and emotional that will release the creative potential of the greatest number of employees.”


Using personality assessments to reveal innovation preferences across the range of risk tolerance is necessary to organize teams that bring a diversity of thought and approach, that balance those who are risk tolerant with those who are more cautious…who often bring excellent organization skills.


To study the problem of unbalanced teams, ICS conducted a case study comparing the innovation of a team comprised of “Builders” with that of a team comprised of “Pioneers.” Builders and Pioneers are terms for two ends of the spectrum in our “Innovation Orientation” scale.


“The Innovation Orientation provides cognitive results presented on a continuum from Extreme Builder to Extreme Pioneer. In general, Builders are predisposed to work within a given paradigm to do things better and thereby improve the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the organization,” wrote Bob Rosenfeld. “Pioneers are predisposed to break out of the current paradigm in an effort to do things differently and create something entirely new.”


Innovation as a team process


In our study, while assessing the solutions of each team, it became apparent that all teams felt they took on risk, but how those risks were manifested varied. However, the solutions of the Builder teams were much more conventional than those of the Pioneer teams. The Builders had a much greater tendency to operate “within the box” and the Pioneers operated more “outside of the box.”


These findings indicate that assessments like the ISPI can be used to identify and select team members based on the desired outcomes for a specific project. As expected, Pioneer teams tend to produce more leaps, whereas Builder teams produce more incremental outcomes.

But you need a mix of these outcomes and the best teams, in our view, are those that are diverse and balanced with the risk takers and the cautious. Because innovation is not just bold new ideas. Innovation is the process to make the ideas work within the business model. So, while you need the fearless rule-breakers for spark, you also need the calculating analytical people to channel often-times chaotic creativity so it can be practically applied in a workable solution.

A culture of innovation will make the fears of uncertainty, failure, and social sanctions less. And a culture of well chosen, diverse teams will further manage the fear for more innovation.


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