6 Ways to Encourage Risk Taking and Disruptive Innovation

riskPhoto courtesy of Ken Douglass

Successful leaders are forever under pressure to produce consistent results and maintain high standards. The inclination over time is to protect status by making conservative decisions and taking fewer risks, but this kind of behavior leads to stagnation. The most innovative organizations thrive on leadership and a culture that encourages appropriate risk-taking.
Before having children, I used to snowboard frequently. I loved pushing the limits of speed and danger by attempting tricks and maneuvers better suited to someone half my age. My love for snowboarding and other extreme sports meant that I acquired more than my share of bumps, bruises and injuries. When I crashed (which was often), I figured out where I went wrong and incorporated that information into my next attempt. Leaders must adopt a similarly extreme approach. You make little progress when you take a painless and well-traveled path to do what you’ve always done. Great leaders don’t play it safe; they focus on error recovery and

learning, not failure avoidance.

Try, fail, learn. Try, fail, learn. That’s the leader’s mantra. –Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner

How does one begin to create a culture of risk-taking? Here are 6 ideas to embrace:


Embrace thoughtful failure by building it into your meeting agendas and monthly reports. Ask people to share their “failure of the month” and what they learned. Better yet, at your next retreat ask EVERYONE to grab a marker and write their greatest failure and what they learned from it. You must be the first to share by revealing one of your MAJOR flops (even an embarrassing one) to create a safe space for discussion..


Establish a portfolio of three major projects for staff to pursue that contain varying degrees of risk and complexity. Projects should be distinguishing, transformational and difficult to attain. Even if staff don’t achieve every goal, the challenge sets the tone for future risk-taking. If they meet several of their milestones, the successes serve to generate energy, enthusiasm and credibility. This approach works particularly well for new hires, allowing them to gain visibility and momentum in a short period of time.


Leaders who value innovation shield risk-takers from critics and cynics. Conservators of the status quo will look for mistakes and failure as evidence to support their resistance to change. Publicly acknowledge and reward attempts to forge new ground (including failures) and send a strong message to those that seek to belittle and impede new ideas.

“Punish mediocre successes, Reward Brilliant Failure” –Tom Peters


Rapid prototyping is a method of designing, testing and modifying solutions quickly. The emphasis is on generating a multitude of options and failing several times before arriving at a finished product or service. It’s all about failing fast, failing often, and failing small. It’s easier to make changes in a

course of action (or decide that such action should not be pursued at all) before a major investment of time or money is committed. Subdivide a major initiative into several smaller attempts where the cost of failure has less impact. You’ll gain valuable feedback through each iteration.

The Marshmallow Challenge (download instructions and PowerPoint) is a fun group exercise that demonstrates this concept. The materials are inexpensive and easy to obtain from your local grocery store. The 18-minute activity clearly illustrates the benefits of rapid prototyping versus traditional planning methods.


All leaders make bad decisions throughout their career, yet very few publicly acknowledge their mistakes. That’s hard, but it’s precisely what we need to do. Next time you screw up, don’t sweep it under the rug and pretend it didn’t occur; instead, draw attention to it. That will send a message to staff that it’s okay to try something new, even if you fail in the attempt.


Instead of saying “You screwed up,” or “That was a mistake,” ask, “What did you learn? Initiatives shouldn’t be measured on a pass/fail basis, but on the lessons gained. In practical terms, there is a quid pro quo arrangement. As a leader, you give staff permission to make mistakes, and they have a responsibility to understand what went wrong, adjust and not repeat the same mistakes. Ensure that learning gets shared with others and placed into institutional memory, so that others can benefit.

Leaders need to remember that risk-takers are the most likely individuals to provide solutions to their greatest challenges. Even if you don’t entirely understand what they have proposed or where they are going, if your staff has a passion for an idea, give them the latitude to explore and experiment. As Woody Allen reminds us, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” Don’t just encourage failure and reflection–demand it.

QUESTIONS: Is risk-taking encouraged and supported by you and your organization? Have you ever taken a controversial point of view? Can you identify a time that you have supported and protected your risk-takers.

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Posted on by Tony Doody in Management
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  • benjamin smith

    How would one do this if they weren’t the leader Carl? For example, someone who is considered to lack the ‘knowledge’ for their curriclum area, therefore are unable go make critical decisions, like calculated risks. Do participants need a level of understanding before they or their leader can opt for risk taking? How does one institutionalise this kind of thing, in new environments?

    • benjamin smith

      Sorry tony.