Are Your Employees Creative Risk-Takers?

If you need better ideas to improve performance, identify and nurture the innovators and risk-takers on your team.
Are Your Employees Creative Risk-Takers?
Asking risk-takers just to implement changes, not help develop them, is to court failure and risk losing valuable employees who feel under-utilized.

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These days, managers who are constantly challenged to do more with less must innovate to survive and thrive. But to find new ways of doing things, they first should take an objective look at their team and make a critical determination: Which employees are creative risk-takers and which ones aren’t? 

The difference is mission-critical. Asking risk-takers just to implement changes, not help develop them, is to court failure and risk losing valuable employees who feel under-utilized. And expecting novel ideas from sustainers – those who simply enjoy doing the tried-and-true – could result in a blank slate.           

“It’s helpful to see where people are at so you can assign projects in ways that help them be more successful,” says Linda Draze, training director for the State of Minnesota. “You might put a risk-taker on a team to come up with new ideas to solve a problem, but not on a team to implement ideas.” 

Are you an innovator?

This applies to managers, too. A self-aware manager must know how his or her approach may affect other people. So if you’re a “new-idea-a-minute” person surrounded by a team of sustainers, you probably need to take more time to introduce new ideas. 

“On the other hand, if someone on your team is always going in five different directions at one time, it’s not that they’re not listening to you or can’t take direction,” says Draze. “It’s just that they have a high degree of creativity, and one of the benefits is new ideas all the time. So figure out how to communicate with that person. Find the best way to lead them. 

“I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but it wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I discovered an important managerial truth – that a conductor is the only person in orchestra who doesn’t make a sound. 

“Managers are like conductors in that they need all these people to play different parts, and must lead them. And most effective leaders do it rather quietly. They don’t expect people to behave in ways they can’t. They don’t put two sustainers in a room and ask them to brainstorm ways to solve a problem creatively. Such people are just not wired to come up with creative ideas.” 

Consult the Creatrix

To help managers figure out where their staff members lie on the innovation scale, Draze suggests using the Creatrix, a tool developed by the Richard Byrd Co., an employee-development consulting firm. By analyzing the answers to a set of questions, managers can see where their direct reports fall among eight categories: dreamer, risk-taker, innovator, challenger, modifier, practicalizer, planner or synthesizer. 

Employees who fall to the left side of the matrix are more likely to suggest ideas involving incremental changes in processes and operations. Employees on the right side  tend to combine concepts and ideas and see relationships between things that others typically wouldn’t consider. In other words, they’re true innovators, and only five percent of people fall into this category, according to Creatrix research.           

“Some might score high on risk-taking but low on creativity, while other may be the first to criticize an idea, but may not have a better idea of their own,” Draze says. “On the lower side of the scale are sustainers, who don’t like risks and aren’t creative.” 

There is no right or wrong on the matrix – just shades and degrees of risk-taking. Whether employees are sustainers, challengers or innovators, each has strengths that add value. However, older and more established organizations tend to have fewer risk-takers because they develop rules and bureaucracies that stifle creativity, drive away innovators, and leave behind sustainers. 

Managing sustainers

Should managers be concerned that sustainers who play second fiddle to innovators when it comes to problem-solving assignments will become resentful? Not really, Draze says. Most often, sustainers feel better staying in their comfort zone. 

On the flip side, managers should encourage sustainers or others who rank low on the innovation matrix, but who want the chance to become more creative. “It’s absolutely fine if people want to step outside their comfort zone and go from sustainer to innovator –  it can be taught,” Draze says. 

“I’ve had several people who come out as sustainers on the matrix and they’re surprised and depressed. They don’t want to be labeled as uncreative. It turns out that many people labeled as sustainers can’t be risk takers because of the nature of their jobs. Being a sustainer doesn’t mean you’re stubborn or resistant to change.” 

Go get creative

After identifying the innovators, a manager’s job is to let them go to work. Draze says the most effective innovation comes when people dig deep and delve into the actual problem, not just the symptoms. Finding the real problem may involve restating it and reframing it several times. 

“Sometimes we’re under the gun for a solution, so we look at the symptoms and solve those, rather than getting to the real cause of the problem,” Draze says. Team members should also consider what might be blocking true out-of-the-box thinking: fear of the unknown, old habits, old rules they’re afraid to break, general complacency, old assumptions, and worries about being challenged or questioned. 

Inevitably, debate reaches what Draze calls the “groan zone,” where people become frustrated with one another and where they are in the process. “You need to go through the groan zone to the other side, where you can make a decision,” she says.

The results – innovative ideas ­– are well worth the effort. 

“When some of us think of innovation, we equate it with efficiency,” Draze says. “But that’s only half of the equation. The other half is risk-taking. Too often, we don’t want to take risks because we might get bad press when something backfires. But innovation is essential if you’re going to meet the challenges in front of you. We need to find new ways of doing things in order to better serve the public.”                      


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