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Action Tip

Develop a culture of risk in your teams

What do the most innovative companies in the world have in common*?
Small, constant changes to their products, services, processes, or
business models. This approach to innovation requires the development
of a culture that favors risk taking and rewards failure.

1. Develop a feeling of safety in your teams

If the context is favorable, your teams are not afraid to fail and thus to experiment. The only condition is that risk taking is exercised in a clearly defined framework.

Create a climate of trust

It is impossible to have teams take initiatives if there is a general climate of mistrust.

• Be clear: Employees feel unengaged when they do not know what is expected of them. Unclear expectations make it impossible for them to show initiative. By giving them clear and specific goals, your teams understand their role and are willing to take risks to achieve them.

• Be consistent: Nothing is worse than managers who give the impression that they change their mind based on the situation (e.g., a certain risk is acceptable in one situation and sanctioned in another). Consistency leads to experimentation with new things.

•  Enhance risk, including in the event of failure: The rewards (financial incentives, new responsibilities, etc.) should not be based solely on the result of an initiative, but also on the risks taken to achieve it.

Define a risk-taking framework

Contrary to popular belief, the absence of rules inhibits more than it stimulates risk taking. Take the time to establish a framework for individual initiatives and to clearly define what you expect from employees so that risk taking is exercised in a reassuring environment.

• Set clear objectives: Explain to your employees that you are looking for new product ideas, or that you want to improve certain processes (customer relations, quality, etc.). By defining objectives, you reduce the field of possibilities but ensure that initiatives are focused in the right direction.

• Define the rules of the game: What is an acceptable risk? What are the values that no one should transgress? Do you want certain specific steps to be respected before any initiative is taken (risk analysis, collective discussion, etc.)?

• Set limits: For example, your employees are encouraged to show initiative, but must inform you if they encounter a problem. The aim is to prevent a small mistake from turning into a catastrophe.

2. Create a space for individual initiative

To promote initiative taking, empower your teams and give them real freedom to act.

Empower your teams

Taking the risk to fail requires a strong feeling of group belonging and empowerment.

• Share your vision: Do your employees have a clear idea of the direction in which you are going? Does everyone know how they can contribute to your vision?

• Facilitate access to resources: Transforming an idea into an initiative requires investments (energy, time, budget). By providing access to resources, you make your teams autonomous and you invite them to see their ideas through.

• Promote experimentation: Give your employees the opportunity to experiment without them needing to constantly report to you.

• Recognize the right to fail: Regularly remind employees that the right to fail is a key value of your company. If possible, call on the support of management (CEO communication, communication of success stories born from a failure, etc.) to show that risk is an integral part of the company’s DNA.

Promote collaboration

Giving employees the possibility to show initiative is useless if centralized decision-making processes stifle new ideas.

• Recognize talents: All employees should have a clear vision of the necessary skills and knowledge to affirm their beliefs and to experiment, even if that means getting into conflict.

• Let go: Good ideas are often born in the field, close to customers. Give your teams true decision-making freedom to show that individual initiatives are part of their responsibilities.

• Break silos: Encourage people with diverse skills to work together and give them considerable autonomy. The multidisciplinary approach stimulates creativity and facilitates access to resources, thus encouraging initiatives.

3. Establish processes for experimentation

To promote experimentation, send a clear signal to your teams and support them over time.

Give permission to fail

Even if the framework seems conducive to individual initiatives, without a clear signal from managers, risk taking remains elusive.

• Reassure: Initiatives are often only taken by employees when they feel sufficiently competent in their jobs – which never happens when the mission is constantly changing. Tell them that risk taking implies an imperfect control of their activity.

•  Be supportive: Encouraging individual initiative does not means that you need to be completely absent. Showing that you remain available to your employees if they need it (especially by helping them to evaluate danger) helps them to get started.

•  Create a spark: A challenge, a contest, or a suggestion box can help drive initiatives. The objective is to show everyone that to solve a problem or to improve a process, you need everyone to offers solutions, even if they are absurd or risky.

Provide long-term support

Encourage a project management approach based on learning through error and not on planning.

• Value new skills: Stop asking your teams to provide a detailed business plan of their project! Encourage them instead to develop their ability to adapt over time to the failures they encounter.

• Give your employees training opportunities in methods that support experimentation: Preparing for the unforeseeable requires the ability to learn through repetition (collect as much information as possible including on failures to constantly adjust practices) and selection (simultaneously leading several projects and abandoning the least relevant ones as uncertainty rises).

• Reward risks while staying unbiased: You cannot compensate an employee who took a type of risk that led to a positive result, and punish another employee who took a similar risk but had negative consequences.

• Promote feedback: Compile failures and successes to be able to learn from them. Establish group sessions to analyze mistakes to ensure that lessons learned are shared collectively.

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Clémence Thiry
Published by Clémence Thiry
Clémence is Digital Manager. She is in charge of our digital strategy and of running our blog and newsletter. She also supports our customer projects with content for managers’ digital communities.