The Fear Barrier: Weighing Risk and Reward in Innovation

The Fear Barrier: Weighing Risk and Reward in Innovation

By Harvey Wade

Humans do not like change and dislike the disruption it brings. We like to know where we are and what we have to do. We only tolerate change when we perceive the need for it or when we have to. That size of “need” is different for every person. Doing something different creates a sense of fear in most of us. The unknown can be exciting, but fear is always in the emotional mix.

Innovation is the art of the new and different and is the outcome of implementing an idea. An idea creates the possibility of a new way, change and consequently a disruption.

Hello Fear!

Innovation cannot be made risk-free or fear-free, otherwise everyone would be at it, and I wouldn’t be writing this piece. Innovation always involves a risk and taking risks. Fear of failure tends to be why we don’t take the chance.

Jonathan Fields, the best selling innovation author comments: “Fear of failure is a combination of ‘fear of loss’ with ‘fear of judgement’.” Fear of loss, although hard, can be overcome. Fear of judgement is much harder to overcome, for once you lose your reputation, it’s almost impossible to restore. This fear is escalated when the idea becomes more open or visible to a large group of people.

Many organizations ask their employees for ideas, but they often underestimate or, worse, overlook, the role of fear in this behaviour. The fear factor is one of the main reasons for low engagement and participation in corporate innovation programs. People fear what others will think of them; the fear of judgement.

Suggesting a new idea in front of ten people has a low fear factor, and is somewhat easier than raising it in front of a hundred people. However, if the audience numbers tens of thousands, which it can in a large organization, especially those that use crowdsourcing methods, then that’s a bold thing you are asking someone to do. The larger the audience, the bigger the risk.

How To Overcome the Fear Factor

Telling someone to stop being afraid just won’t work, as fear can’t simply be turned off. It’s an emotion, and a rational argument or comment will not counter it. To overcome fear, you must explore what it would take for someone to do that. What is the benefit or reward needed for a person to face their fears? You have to make the reward payoff larger than the fear if you want to succeed.

I have a fear of heights; rock climbing is not one of my enjoyable pastimes. However, if one of my children had fallen down a cliff, I would not hesitate to attempt to get them. My love and desire to rescue them would overcome my fear, as the payoff is bigger than the fear.

In most organizations, there is an atmosphere of fear hanging around. People want to have a good reputation and build their career on solid foundations. Why should they take a risk and volunteer an idea? What’s in it for them? You cannot remove the fear, so here are some practical ways to increase the payoff.

  1. Incentivize & Reward

    If innovation is a key goal in your organization, then the performance management system must reward it. If I can get a great bonus without being innovative, then why bother. In addition, some organizations state that innovative capability is a key requirement for promotion. I love this, as surely you want your best, most creative people to be leading the key areas of your organization.

  2. Focus Idea Challenges

    Most people have an innate desire to help. When someone asks you for directions, you will want to give them an answer, even if you don’t know! In the same way, when a leader makes it clear that they need help, a large group of employees will seek to help. Therefore, be very clear on why ideas are needed, what will happen if nothing changes and how the organization will benefit if everyone helps. It does take a certain amount of “ego swallowing”, but the outcome is worth it.

  3. Personalize the Benefit

    Answer the “what’s in it for me?” question. This may mean that you have to offer prizes to encourage ideas and participation. I recommend avoiding hard cash, as it discourages collaboration, but offer development opportunities or experiences that are highly sought or exclusive. You will know what chimes in your organization.

  4. Thinking the Worst

    My final tip is a more personal one. If someone has a great idea, but does not want to publicize it, you need to encourage them. I have found that asking, “what’s the worst that can happen?” is really helpful. It forces them to rationalise their fear, and often, you can then take steps to encourage them to take action. Remember, most people’s default position is change-avoidance.

Once you recognize the impact that fear has on your innovation efforts, you can begin to design and create payoffs that will overcome, and enjoy the increased participation, creativity and impact that innovation will have.

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 9, 2013 and has been updated. 

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