How To Play It Safe (Hint: Don’t!)

By Diane Domeyer, Executive Director, The Creative Group, a specialized staffing service placing interactive, design, marketing, advertising and public relations professionals with a variety of firms.

There can be no innovation without risk-taking. It’s part of the bargain. But when it comes to taking chances with digital marketing initiatives, 19 percent of the advertising and marketing executives surveyed by The Creative Group admit they play it much too safe. Another 29 percent of respondents said they take some risks — but not nearly enough. What’s wrong here?

Clinging to the status quo is no way to take your organization to the next level. Brands that fail to innovate could be doomed to becoming a cautionary footnote in business case studies. It’s not enough to have just one innovator on your team. You need to establish an entire culture where smart risk-taking trumps playing it safe. Here are five ways you can foster it.

1. Step Up Training

It’s during professional development events that your team learns from avant-garde thinkers and are introduced to the latest digital trends. That’s one of the most compelling reasons to send your designers, animators, producers, developers and marketers to classes, seminars and industry conferences. When they get back home, they’ll not only have more fresh ideas than before, but also the knowledge and skills to implement them.

2. Mix Things Up

Of all professions, creative specialists probably crave variety and stimulation the most. When they do the same work over and over again, they can easily get bored, run out of ideas and stop experimenting. That can be a big problem. Keep your team on their toes and out of a rut by rotating assignments. Have employees cross-train each other so everyone has a broader understanding of all aspects of a project. Encourage staff to step out of their comfort zone and try new things. And engage freelancers and consultants to bring new ideas and different perspectives to the team.

3. Treat An ‘Oops’ As An Opportunity

Rather than punishing an employee for mistakes or turning a blind eye when things don’t go as planned, use those situations as teaching moments. During the debrief of a failed project, involve the team in examining exactly what happened, when things went off track and how everyone could do things differently in the future to yield better results. By talking through the process without judgment or punishment, you’ll cultivate an environment where workers feel safe trying out new ideas and soliciting your feedback.

4. Encourage The Hive Mind

History is replete with tales of risk takers who won. But if you take a closer look, they didn’t do it alone. Steve Jobs didn’t come up with the iPhone all by himself. A sharp and nimble team can make the difference between a foolish gamble and a smart risk. Talented people can vet ideas, toss out the bad and build on the good. So make sure your team has plenty of opportunities to hang out together, brainstorm, confab and innovate. You can even organize meetings across departments so different teams, like marketing, creative, IT and business operations, can collaborate on new ideas.

5. Institute The ‘Default Yes’

Employees who know their manager is likely to dismiss an idea won’t bother pitching it in the first place. Adjust your outlook by getting into the habit of supporting employees’ initiatives — even the quirky ones. In fact, the more unusual the risk, the more you should consider it. Unless an idea is unethical, reckless or goes against company values, take a chance. Of course not every risk will pay off, but you’ll never know unless you first say “yes.”

For some executives, it’s natural to minimize risk-taking. After all, the status quo hasn’t failed you yet, nor does it take up additional resources. But “business as usual” won’t grow your market share. What’s more, our survey suggests it’s a good bet that your competitors are taking smart risks. So, if you’re still playing it safe when it comes to digital initiatives, it may be time to loosen up, take a deep breath and make the leap.