What Is a Normal Level of Innovation Risk?

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
July 19, 2021

Normal is an odd word, one that has taken on new meaning in these days of a global pandemic. As I write this column, there are some parts of the world that are seeing light at the end of the tunnel, while other parts are firmly entrenched in the darkness. Many of us are currently engaging in introspection about what we want to do with our life, our career, and what challenges we need to face. At such a time as this, the topics of risk and innovation are coming up more than usual. Plus, I’m seeing massive confusion about what innovation actually is.

Innovation is a differentiator, a way to make great things happen. But how can we go about innovating as we crawl out of the pandemic we’ve faced over the last 18 months and will continue to deal with for some months into the future? How can we apply and scale all the innovating we have actually done during these past long months? What lessons have we learned? How can we ensure that innovation is still the main driver of our success?

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Whatever normal might be in the future, UX professionals still believe in and have a strong understanding of our need to innovate in design—as well as in engaging with people and in our work—no matter what the industry. It is essential that we ensure innovation permeates throughout our organizations, in a way that enables success rather than stifles it through fear.

Starting Innovation

When I created a new position that focuses solely on using a strong, design-led approach to innovation and how this could drive greater benefit both within my organization and as a way of more deeply engaging with our customers, one of my mentors warned that I must relish receiving criticism from everyone.

Starting a new function in a company—or trying anything new—brings naysayers, critics, and some people who actually relish seeing something fail. This can put a lot of pressure on not just the leader of the team but on anyone who is part of that team and trying to do something that is new to the organization.

Having the right mentality is critical to the success of innovation. During these times, asking people to participate in disruption can come off a bit tone deaf. Haven’t we been disrupted enough over the past 18 months? Aren’t we living in a tidal wave of disruption right now? Whose prerogative is it to ask anyone to take more risk and be more disruptive?

While all of these are valid concerns, we cannot lose sight of the targeted, disruptive behavior that is necessary to ensure true innovation happens. True innovation requires a level of patience, tolerance, and comfort with risk that few people have. You might call it fearlessness or stupidity—in fact, it is probably a lot of both. So why do we seek innovation?

We engage in innovation because it’s is a key driver of economic growth. In the past, creating something new was the predominant way in which innovation added value. What’s great about innovation in business today, in a time such as this, is that innovation is now all about applying the knowledge we already have, usually using technology with which we’re already familiar and the people who are on our team to solve a given business problem. We just do this in a different way.

This represents both a strength and a weakness. Familiar knowledge, technologies, and processes can create great loyalty to any of these elements. Loyalty can generate great stubbornness and resistance to change. Much as in design, the human element can make or break our attempts at innovation. When people have invested in a process that they may have played a strong role in crafting, there is usually a fair bit of resistance to doing anything to change it, especially if you want to change something that your colleagues see as working well—even if, in actuality, it is not. So how can you tilt that human element in your favor? By derisking any change you need people to accept.

Derisking Risk

Here are a number of best practices that help to derisk risk.

Recognize that people’s appetite for risk may have changed.

Risk is usually hard to swallow in any organizational environment. Therefore, for any innovation to take hold and flourish, it is important to establish your organization’s appetite for risk. Pre-pandemic, their risk appetite might have been vastly different from what it is right now.

Identify the key components that are risky.

Chances are that not everything about pulling together your existing knowledge, technologies, and processes and thinking about them in a new and different way to create innovation is risky. For example, maybe a core piece of technology has too much political will behind it for you to change it right now, so choose a few elements of the process that you can change. Perhaps you might identify knowledge that your organization has not freely shared with others as a risk and put a plan into place to address this gap. When you look at the key elements of a large problem, it definitely seems risky. But, when you break down that large problem into smaller elements, you are essentially derisking the risk.

Never forget the human element.

Many of us are familiar with this quotation: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” This idea has often been attributed Walt Disney—even the Walt Disney Corporation has attributed it to him. By all accounts and actions, Walt Disney was indeed an innovative person, but he never said this. In actuality, an employee of the Walt Disney Corporation came up with that statement to describe a ride at the Epcot Center in the 1980s. From an innovation and organizational-culture perspective, this is a far more interesting aspect of this history than who said it—or even the quotation itself.

This was a case where a leader—such as Walt Disney—was able to both convey his vision for what he wanted to do and foster a culture of innovation in which anyone could and, in fact, was encouraged to be responsible for innovation within their company.

This employee probably never thought of this as innovation, never thought of this way of working as risky or disruptive, and probably never thought much about it all.

Yet what this employee did spoke volumes about the value of innovation that comes from the human element. We often talk about the human element in design, and this no different. It is people who enable innovation. But people can also cause us to stumble in our efforts to achieve innovation.


Again, normal is a funny word these days. Its meaning will continue to change and take on new connotations as we move forward out the pandemic. Innovation is a constant that supports change. The more we embrace the risks of innovation, the greater the outcomes of our innovations can be. 

Vice President, Client Innovation, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsAt Pegasystems, Baruch helps global clients develop new ways of streamlining their operations, improving their customer experience, and creating real transformations—digital or otherwise. Previously, during his 12 years at Pegasystems, Baruch led their global User Experience team and served as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in their delivery of user-interface design and user experience to customers and partners. He has led and participated in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries. Baruch earned his Bachelor of Arts in Professional and Technical Writing and Philosophy at the University of Hartford and his Master’s of Science in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University’s McCallum Graduate School of Business.  Read More

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