To be innovative is to make decisions, develop processes, and create things in new ways that improve over the status quo. Being innovative is necessarily different, and requires stepping away from the proven path to do something new or unusual. Risk and innovation are tied together because you cannot venture into something new or stray from the tried and true without the possibility of making a mistake and being wrong. Therefore, appropriately managing and understanding risk is imperative for innovation.
In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer writes, “Risk aversion is closely tied to the anxiety of making errors. If you work in the middle management of a company, your life probably revolves around the fear of doing something wrong and being blamed for it. Such a climate is not a good one for innovation, because originality requires taking risks and making errors along the way. No risks, no errors, no innovation.” Risk aversion is a fundamental aspect of human psychology. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow shows that we won’t accept risk unless we are certain that the pay-off is at generally about two times greater than the potential loss. We go out of our way to avoid risk, because the potential of losing something is often paralyzing beyond the excitement of a potential gain. Individuals and companies who want to be innovative have to find ways around risk aversion in order to create something new.
Gigerenzer’s example of middle management is excellent for thinking about innovation and why it is often smaller companies and start-ups that make innovative breakthroughs. It also helps explain why in the United States so many successful and innovative companies are started by immigrants or by the super-wealthy. Large established companies are likely to have employees who have been with the company for a longer time and have become more risk averse. They have families, mortgages, and might be unsure they could find an equally attractive job elsewhere. Their incentives for innovation are diminished by their fear of loss if something where to go wrong and if the blame were to fall with them. Better to stick with established methods and to maximize according to well defined job evaluation statistics than to risk trying something new and uncharted. Start-ups, immigrants, and the super-wealthy don’t have the same constraining fears. New companies attract individuals who are less risk averse to begin with, and they don’t have established methods that everyone is comfortable sticking to. Immigrants are not as likely to have the same financial resources that limit their willingness to take risks, and the super-wealthy may have so many resources that the risks they face are smaller relative to their overall wealth and resources. The middle-class, like middle management, is stuck in a position where they feel they have too much to risk in trying to be innovative, and as a result stick to known and measured paths that ultimately reduce risk and innovation.