Sir Ken Robinson

Sir Ken Robinson on Embracing Risk and Fostering Innovation: You Must Adapt to Survive

Innovation breathes life into an organization.

As Sir Ken Robinson puts it, it’s the bloodstream of a company.

Robinson, an internationally-acclaimed expert on creativity, garnered worldwide acclaim with his famed TED Talk — the most-watched in history. With people and organizations, he challenges conventional beliefs about talent and achievement to help foster transformation.

“Nobody has a guaranteed place at the top,” he says. “Businesses can only sustain through innovation, and becoming more adaptable.”

And it begins and ends with effective leadership, Robinson adds.

The World is Changing How We Work

“These are times of unprecedented challenges and opportunity,” says Robinson. “The world is being radically transformed.”

With the emergence of the fourth industrial revolution, the contours of the new world of work are rapidly becoming a reality, where a new skill set is required in order to thrive.

Proficiency in new technologies is one part of this equation. But what will become most valuable for organizations, says Robinson, are intrinsically human traits. This includes human skills like creativity, originality, and critical thinking — the things you can’t replicate with artificial intelligence.

To stay competitive in this uncertain future, organizations must nurture a culture of innovation that taps into the creativity of their people, he says.

For many leaders, particularly those running large, well-established businesses, this can be a daunting prospect. It requires organizations to unite everyone under a collective vision. And to create an environment where ideas are encouraged, recognized, and awarded — where people feel willing and ready to take risks.

“If it’s all command and control, it’s unlikely people will share ideas,” Robinson cautions.

To be successful, leaders should treat innovation as a core competency, a competitive strategy, and an inherent quality of company culture — where it’s part of the everyday language of the business.

One approach is to set up “innovation hubs” or labs at work, where people across departments have designated time to collaborate creatively and prototype new ideas. Leaders can make this a priority by allocating budget.

“Small changes can have big impact,” says Robinson.

Innovation Suffers in a Culture of Compliance

As Robinson emphasizes, sustaining a company culture that embraces innovation and encourages risk-taking depends on supportive leadership from the top down. A shortage of such leadership presents a major challenge to everyone involved — even for those who’ve been tasked to drive innovation for their organization.

Most companies struggle to put new ideas into practice, he explains. That’s because it’s often easier to settle into the status quo, rather than face new challenges head-on.

“Companies are human communities and they’re always a complex mesh of personalities and power lines — like life itself,” Robinson adds. That’s why leadership styles matter so much.

Some leaders welcome feedback and collaboration, and some are threatened by it, as Robinson asserts. Others find it difficult to stimulate people and their ideas. Or, they don’t see the need or aren’t really ready for change themselves.

Whatever the challenge, if a company can’t commit to the mindset and culture shifts needed to grow, adapt, and innovate — it will eventually atrophy, he says.

“It’s hard to overestimate the importance of leadership,” says Robinson. “If you know the people in the corner office don’t get it or don’t believe in it, it’s very hard to move in new directions.”

When organizations put in the work to build an environment ripe for creativity, innovation, and risk-taking, “they can grow in all kinds of unexpected ways,” he emphasizes.

When Leaders Aren’t Ready 

So what can people do when their leaders don’t seem to get the need for risk and innovation? There are no hard and fast answers, says Robinson. It depends on the leaders — and the nature and scale of the risk.

In general, though, try and see the issues from the viewpoint of the people you need to convince, he suggests. And come ready with solutions that align to what matters most to them.

To be more proactive in your approach — and challenge and stretch the minds of your top executives — do the legwork required to make a recommendation that aligns with company goals. 

“If the risk is necessary and worth taking, present the evidence to support it,” Robinson counsels. “If the case is persuasive, take the time to put it together.”

When leaders are hard to approach, test the waters with others inside the company who may be more open to the conversation. If daunting still, you may want to suggest giving an outside voice a seat at the table. “Outside consultants can also be helpful in facilitating conversations that insiders find difficult to broach,” he says.

And if it seems like a genuine lost cause? Life is short, says Robinson. “You can try to live with it, and wait it out, in the hope that a change of leadership will make the difference.” It very well may, he adds. “Or, get out and move on. That’s a personal choice.”

Want to foster creativity and innovation at your organization? Bring Sir Ken Robinson to your next event. Request availability here.

Author Anna Jasinski is a content marketing strategist at WSB. In her former life, she was a content consultant for Fortune 500 brands, and a magazine journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @annamjasinski

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