Worth the Risk

It was amazing to see how creativity came to the fore as a major theme at the Olympic Games in London last summer. Many of us were glued to the television every evening, watching the sporting events and cheering on the athletes who competed, but you can’t reflect on this year’s Olympic festivities without appreciating the special celebratory events. Critics hailed the opening and closing ceremonies as a demonstration of creativity at its best.

A lot of this is about enabling risk: who would have thought Danny Boyle would take the risk to ask the Queen to take part in a James Bond spoof? Who would have thought the Queen would accept? The ceremonies that bookended the Olympics were filled with ambitious ideas. The number of moving components and people involved was staggering. It was no small undertaking, and a lot of risks paid off.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, the writer responsible for the scenarios for these massive productions, reflected on his experience in an article that ran in the Guardian just after the opening ceremony. He described the kind of spirit with which the team worked:

“Danny created a room where no one was afraid to speak, no one had to stick to their own specialism, no one was afraid of sounding stupid or talking out of turn. He restored us to the people we were before we made career choices – to when we were just wondering.”

This is the kind of experience that Knowinnovation strives to create when we run an event designed to provoke creative thinking and new ideas. If the rapport amongst people in a room allows for freewheeling without fear of looking foolish, and puts people on an even playing field so that all ideas are considered, the likelihood of a novel outcome is much higher. When people dare to take intellectual risks, new things can happen. Innovation requires creative risk-taking.

It starts with helping people to feel at ease with each other and establishing an atmosphere of equality. Little things matter, even the name tags. Instead of handing out printed badges with titles and implied hierarchy, participants are given a blank card and asked to write their name. It’s a very small thing, but it makes a big difference in creating the right mood. And it’s always interesting to see how some participants will initially just write their name in a very conservative fashion, and then, later in the day, they sneak back to the badge table and create something artistic with the coloured pens and light-hearted stickers we’ve left out.

Creating a comfortable and safe space isn’t something that can be done quickly, which is what distinguishes the shorter Jumpstart events from a 5-day Sandpit or Ideas Lab. With more time, the level of trust between participants reaches a deeper level. Running up to the shorter events, we try to use The Creative Thinking Course and online social networking to help people reach a level of comfort before arriving at the meeting venue. The idea is to build the momentum of rapport that will allow people to feel safe enough to let go and be a little bonkers, to take risks and to dare to say something different. This is at the heart of creativity and we believe it’s also at the heart of world-class research.

We, too, have to continually learn and create. KI’s process might be a practiced framework that we work within but our programs are never the same. We are continually taking risks and learning from each other, and from the participants, at every event we run.

The surge of creativity endured through the Paralympics; we loved the focus on science in the “Age of Enlightenment” theme of its opening ceremony. Stephen Hawking’s narrative explicitly mentioned creativity and extolled the human spirit: “What is important is the ability we have to create.” If you watched any of the Paralympic events, you surely gained a new understanding about the level of risk involved in competing as an athlete with a disability. It’s a different and inspiring perspective, one that ought to remind us that in most matters – especially creative ones – it’s always worth the risk.


Know Further: More about creativity and about creative problem solving at the Olympics. See James Bond and the Queen in the opening ceremony and video highlights of the closing. See the Paralympics in pictures. Read a report about the importance of risk taking in science. Managing innovation in a climate of caution. And for inspiration, 50 quotations about risk taking.