Risky Business

Risk. The word is generally used in a pejorative manner, suggesting that risk is something to be avoided or minimised.  Common terms such as risk factors, risk-averse, risk assessment, risk analysis and risk-free also indicate that risk should be significantly restricted; perhaps with the intention of risk being eliminated.  We take a number of risks every day and risk is an inherent part of life. Risk management seems a more realistic term; although the scale and probability of risks vary, risk can never be entirely removed. The need to understand the possibility and probability of various risks and perhaps to offset significant risks is understandable.

A fervent desire to protect offspring is a natural, inherent aspect of parenting and a critical factor in the survival of the species.  It is, however, foolish for parents to assume there will be no risks or to protect from every imaginable risk. Introducing the concept of ‘bubble wrapping’ to protect against all risks is not only pointless; it has been found to be counterproductive. There will inevitably be strong opposition expressed about excessive restrictions, often resulting in greater risk-taking in order to test and break free from overly-restrictive boundaries.  Taking some risks is a normal developmental task of adolescents as they test emerging capabilities and assert independence. Hopefully these are positive, not dangerous, risks. An overly protective parenting limits adolescents from becoming independent, autonomous adults who have incorporated risk-management as a regular thinking task.

Risk has been identified as an essential component of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. In order to break away from current beliefs and patterns, an individual has to be prepared to take risks.  Innovative breakthroughs depend upon curiosity, trying different approaches; a willingness to take risks and preparedness to make mistakes.  Mario Livio, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, has written about the mistakes that well-known scientists have made; how these mistakes prompted scientists to challenge existing paradigms and scientific beliefs and prompted significant scientific advances.  

Innovation is fostered through posing provocative questions; through trial and error. Innovation is based upon a willingness to take risks, whether this is by challenging existing beliefs and norms, via the commitment to follow through on an idea or the financial risk involved in backing a new idea to fruition. Entrepreneurs must be willing to take financial and reputational risks to establish a new business enterprise.  Backing a new discovery or venture can be risky business.  Some entrepreneurs are extremely successful; whereas others succumb to financial ruin. Lisa Kavanaugh describes this as ‘sweat equity’: the willingness to commit, to share risk and reward.

Ken Robinson, renowned for promotion of creativity, refers to a culture of conformity and compliance – the opposite of risk-taking – as inhibiting the development of creativity. Stanford University researcher, Shirley Brice Heath, identified positive risk-taking common among the most creative students, in a 30-year longitudinal study. Positive risk-taking must be encouraged to increase creativity and innovation.

© Michele Juratowitch