Risk, Failure, and Innovation
Risk Failure and Innovation

Risk, Failure, and Innovation

I’m neither an expert in risk or innovation. I’ve experienced my share of both, but at 33 years I can hardly say I’ve experienced more than most. Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of risk aversion; a lot of people wanting great success (Yakshemash!) but a lot less willing take risks to get there. However, common sense tells me that you can’t have innovation without some risk.

I admit that risk is a bit scary – for me, failure means my seventeen month-old daughter might not be able to continue going to daycare, which she loves; or that she’ll have less toys at Christmas, which she doesn’t understand but she loves *gasp*; or worse-yet, depending on the risk, that she’ll grow up without a daddy. I get it, risks are scary and we need to be careful, and rather selective, about which ones we take. Let me be clear: we still need to take risks!

Without risk there is no innovation, and without innovation there is no substantial progress. Yes, I believe that: progress (not simply status quo but change and growth) comes from innovation and without risk there is ZERO innovation. Seriously, think about it for a minute: can you think of a product where the research, development, or introduction involved literally zero risk?

I’m not saying you have to accept the risk – you don’t have to sit there and wait for it to jump you, take your lunch money, and pull your underwear back over your head. Lowering risk is good – accepting risk may make sense, or even be the only option, sometimes but here are some ways to acknowledge risk and lower its likelihood of coming to fruition:

  • You can avoid it completely, forget your idea, change direction, and watch your idea wither on the vine. Seriously, forget it and be safe. Look for a better opportunity and keep up the status quo – sometimes we just need the status quo and sometimes the potential just isn’t worth it.
  • You can transfer it. I recall a number of times my client wanted a game-changing website but my management wasn’t comfortable taking on the 24/7 support contract so we transferred that risk to a sub-contractor. Innovation safe, risk averse, but not total avoidance; best of both worlds.
  • You can mitigate that risk. Yes, that’s right! You can see the risk, spend some time planning, maybe even implementing some changes, and nullify that risk. Ain’t it great? Think of things in the world that only exist because of risk mitigation. How about ice-breaking ships – they didn’t turn around and avoid the risk, they didn’t ask someone else to deliver goods to remote villages, they strengthened the hull and made the ship strong enough to break the ice!
  • Of course, you can always simply accept the risk, as I mentioned above. Sometimes the gamble is worth it and it’s the right move. Sometimes.

I recently read Innovation Doesn’t Mean Risk, which struck me as odd when I first read the title. Clever choice, actually a bit misleading. The article, the only thing I’ve found that suggested risk was not required for innovation, was really about how you didn’t have to accept risk and how you could make smart decisions to limit the risk exposure. It’s exactly what I believe – look at the risks associated with your plan, build a strategy and work to avoid realizing that risk while still making progress.

I don’t agree with the entire article though. Risk is a part of innovation. In fact, risk is an integral partner with innovation. Risk is what inspires us to work harder for success (and often smarter). Risk begets failure and, you know what, failure isn’t the end. For one of the most overused quotes I’ve ever heard on failure allow me to share with you Steve Jobs’s thoughts on the end of his first tenure with apple: “It turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me”. Overused, but completely true. Failure gives us a chance to learn what doesn’t work and a chance to improve on those aspects of our lives. Yes, failure can be disheartening but it is up to us to find ways to be inspired by failure.

Failure is not the end – and that’s the key. Failure is a bump in the road, it’s a chance to look at your project, task, goal, idea, and to identify what’s not working and refocus on the things that are working. Give yourself little milestones and at each one look back. Accept that some things may not have worked and don’t dwell – grow. This is where failure becomes opportunity and not the heavy weight most of us allow it to be.

Remember, we are all averse to failure and therefore often afraid to take risks; especially this guy, here in front of you, with the seventeen month-old, writing about it. No, we cannot avoid risk and be judged to have been innovative in our time, and we can rarely do so and make progress. We must accept that risk exists, we must look for ways to lessen the opportunities for risk to actualize while still taking steps forward. Through risk we will identify new ways to progress, be innovative, and grow.

Always take risks. Accept that failure is part of the process just as much as success is. Through risk – and especially through failure – you will find yourself innovating.

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