Risky Business: How to Foster a Culture of Smart Risk-Taking

A culture of smart risk-taking leads to more innovative work—which is exactly the sort of work that rises to the top in HOW’s In-House Design Awards. This competition is perfect not only for showcasing the talent in an in-house group but also for elevating the team’s status within the company. Enter today!

By Diane Domeyer, executive director of The Creative Group

While companies may think they’re pushing the envelope when developing new advertising and marketing campaigns, their creative employees could very well hold a different view.

In fact, most of them would likely disagree. Seven in 10 creative professionals surveyed (scroll down for the infographic) for The Creative Group and AIGA’s annual Creative Team of the Future project said their firms don’t take enough creative risks with projects. And more than one-quarter of respondents said they don’t feel empowered by their managers to take creative risks. Yet being able to experiment—and fail—is crucial to innovation.

According to Google’s head of strategy Eric Solomon and chief evangelist for brand marketing Gopi Kallayil, brands that take bigger risks are reaping bigger rewards and positively impacting brand metrics and sales. And they say it’s often smaller or lesser-known brands that benefit most from taking bigger advertising risks. So why, in this intense era of innovation and entrepreneurship, do some creative professionals feel like they have to hold back?


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Matt Lupton, in-house art director for USA Swimming in Colorado Springs, Colo., offers a reason for companies wanting to be perceived as innovative yet hesitating to go out on a limb. “It doesn’t take many examples of spectacular flameouts in the spotlight of social media to make companies twitchy,” he says. “At the same time, you have to recognize that real innovation and better problem-solving invariably come from someone taking that perilous first step. Recognizing that fact and then having the actual gumption to pull the trigger when the time is prime are two very different things.”

While more than half of the creative professionals we surveyed feel their organization is perceived as innovative or progressive, the reality is different from the inside looking out. So what’s a corporate creative to do?

“For me, it’s a matter of knowing when I can push the company past our comfort zone,” says Jason Frostholm, an in-house digital content coordinator for Hargrove Engineers + Constructors in Mobile, Ala. “When I started, there was a pretty big learning curve for both my company and myself. I’ve had to become more adaptable and learn how to better communicate with engineers and leadership.”

Another obstacle is executives’ lack of understanding about what designers do. “It boils down to the fact that when it comes to design and marketing, they aren’t sure where to start,” Frostholm says.

Like it or not, it may be up to you to cultivate the culture you crave—or at least speak up about it. To build an environment that truly supports innovation and smart risk-taking, you must help your employer:

  • Be clear about the actions and behaviors the organization values
  • Set up staff members for risk-taking success
  • Avoid assigning blame when a mistake is made

Whether you work for a company that fits that profile or not, the following tactics can help you inject a little more innovation into your design work.

Use a Filter

Frostholm says risk-taking can be a challenge in the conservative industries of architecture, engineering and construction, so he weighs his approach to projects carefully. “I tend to get a lot of creative requests that are very vague, without any real direction and missing pertinent details,” he says. “I try to look at things from the perspective of the person requesting the piece, my company as the client, and what audience we are trying to reach. Once I look at things in that mindset, I write a creative brief for myself based on what I know, and then fill in the details. I use that creative brief to justify to myself whether that project is something worth taking a risk on or if I need to go with the flow.”

For USA Swimming’s Lupton, honoring the brand is the key to figuring out how far to push a given project. “Knowing our organization’s voice helps us to stay true to character, but the character isn’t written in such a way that there isn’t any fresh territory to explore,” he says. “Keeping that as a central idea in our day-to-day work makes pushing visuals, copy or concepts a natural event. Asking ourselves what our ‘character’ might say/do in the given circumstances is a great way to think through a problem.”

Shift Your Perspective

Creatives are frequently tasked with educating the rest of the company about what they do and how it adds value. And while you may be focused on changing your colleagues’ point of view, sometimes it helps to shift your own perspective and approach to get the results you want.

“Recently, I started looking at things as if I’m an ad agency and my company is my client,” Frostholm says. “When I propose something new that I know is going to get pushback, I write a rationale explaining why I made certain choices and how it can help the company.”

Frostholm also says he’s been able to propel more of his ideas through when he can talk with executives face to face. It’s hard to cut through the clutter of email, and you’ll be more persuasive when you can use tone of voice, facial expressions and body language to pitch your ideas.

Get Out of the Comfort Zone

Sometimes the thing that holds creatives back from taking risks—or presenting innovative ideas with confidence—is being too complacent.

Frostholm pushes himself to grow by taking classes, participating in a weekly webcast and attending conferences. “I have a choice. I can rest on my laurels, or I can step outside of my comfort zone and try to do something new,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s up to me to find creativity in what I do. Sometimes, that is just doing a personal project that no one will ever see, or taking a class on Skillshare to learn something I’ve never even thought of learning before.”

If you’re not confident enough to take personal risks, it might be impacting your ability to take creative risks on the job.

Learn to Compromise

When you do decide to take a risk, try not to let your ego get in the way. “It has taken me the better part of my career to figure out that I need to pick my battles,” Frostholm says. “Up until about three years ago, I would vehemently stand behind every piece I did as if it was a truly inspired work of art. (It generally wasn’t but I’m pretty stubborn.) You have to realize you are doing work for your company, and while you may have created a great design that is visually perfect, if it doesn’t make sense in terms of what your company wants to communicate, it isn’t going to work for them.”

Finally, don’t take risks just for the sake of doing so. “My personal belief is that risk-taking as a matter of everyday operations isn’t necessarily something to be lauded,” Lupton says. “Knowing when a genuinely unique idea needs to be brought before the decision-makers—and then pitching it in the right way—is far more important. The fact that a creative can pick his moments to make the big move will usually be remembered far longer than the move itself.”

Taking creative risks is a nuanced endeavor that doesn’t necessarily involve making a big spectacle of every project. If you assess each project objectively, push your personal boundaries and work to establish a culture of innovation within your company, you’ll know when the time is right to take a risk and how to back it up.



Diane Domeyer is executive director of The Creative Group, a specialized staffing service placing interactive, design, marketing, advertising and public relations professionals with a variety of firms. To help businesses foster smart risk-taking, The Creative Group and AIGA have published a new report, Innovation in the House: Creativity Lessons From Five Top In-House Creative Teams, available at creativegroup.com/ctf. It provides an inside look at how creative leaders at five innovative organizations, including Disney’s Yellow Shoes Creative Group, Square and Target, keep their teams inspired.


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