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  • Writer's pictureWhitney Dunlap-Fowler

Exploring Barriers to Innovation Part III: Risk Aversion

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Building modern day brands with an increasingly pessimistic and risk averse generation of brand leaders.

Social scientists and scholars have been ruminating over the alleged decline of ingenuity and creativity in the US for more than a decade. Despite rising IQ scores in America, researchers have been concerned about declining test rates emerging from the Torrance Test, which measures creative abilities and predicts creative achievement on a global scale. There are many multilayered factors to point to what may be causing this decline. In this three part series, Touch of Whit Creative’s Whitney Dunlap-Fowler explores barriers to innovation.


It is a common phenomenon: Innovation briefs and requests that start on a high note. Brand leaders and innovation strategists eagerly gather to talk about the endless possibilities of a new product, service or exciting new invention. Ideas, seemingly boundless in nature, enter the room in abundance with the goal of becoming the winning solution.

Often however, just as quickly as excitement enters the room it dissipates as teams are met with unforeseen internal barriers, dream killing team members and/or political tape around building out potential new processes or ways of working. The result is often innovation that is incremental in nature- good enough to stop the bleeding and maybe even lead to temporary growth, but that doesn’t truly move the needle.

The ability to dream while running, managing or maintaining a successful business can be tricky. The intersection of emergent ideas and good business sense does not always collide at the point of profit and reason — a notion that encourages doubt, reluctance & uncertainty. For brand strategists, the optimism-to-realism rollercoaster is one that we are all too familiar with as we are often hired to come to the table ready to shake things loose but encounter teams hesitant to think and do things differently.

Let’s explore why this may be the case.

We are Products of our Circumstances.

“We are raised to appreciate the accomplishments of inventors and thinkers — creative people whose ideas have transformed our world. We celebrate the famously imaginative, the greatest artists and innovators from Van Gogh to Steve Jobs. We are taught that our own creativity will be celebrated as well, and that if we have good ideas, we will succeed…It’s all a lie. This is the thing about creativity that is rarely acknowledged: Most people don’t actually like it.” (Inside the Box, People don’t actually like creativity- Jessica Olien)

Today’s brand leaders are increasingly members of a generation that grew up with the world promised to them only to see it crash and burn as they reached adulthood. For this group, and likely the generation after, the economic uncertainties that unfolded over the next decade may have inadvertently produced a play-it-safe generation. Add to this the fact optimism in America is not as strong as it should be to inspire new, future focused ideas and we have (and likely will continue to have) an innovation & creativity crisis.

For organizations seeking to hire fresh faces to contribute to creative thinking, this is a difficult phenomenon to navigate as leaders increasingly onboard employees who are less motivated to think outside of the box (among other things we touch on later). Ironically, despite pushes for increased diversity in the workplace to solve for this, companies are not properly crediting or paying attention to diverse voices within their organizations. In part two of this series “Looking for Genius in all the Wrong Places” we explored how bias has shaped the way we value, measure and rank creative contributions from different groups. Perhaps not surprisingly, we found that the contributions from women and people of color are perceived as as less impactful, even if not true. Essentially, society continues to place its creative hopes and dreams on the shoulders of individuals whose viewpoints & life experiences are limited and lacking in diversity.

The Prospect of Failing Out Loud is Paralyzing

While creativity is lauded as a critical weapon in innovation, risk aversion it seems, is a substantial driver for blocking it. In a study on understanding the decline of creativity in marketing and advertising by WFA, Clients and Creativity found that 'risk-averse cultures' was seemingly the number one barrier to boosting the creativity of marketing outputs.

In today’s business world, one wrong misstep not only leads to a loss in profits, but also brings the wrath of an entire board of stakeholders & investors in what has become an increasingly public sphere of criticism thanks to social media. Today, it seems that the payoff of great risk is rarely rewarding and risk aversion is necessary for survival.

Within a company, established ways of working seem to compound this issue as ideas that are too unfamiliar or do not fit within specific formulas of guaranteed success are often dismissed. The resulting effect is a workplace that stifles innovative thinking and perpetuates a toxic culture of risk aversion that is socialized, adopted and maintained internally. More than anything, it sets a precedent that incentivizes individual vs. collective thinking as brand leaders work to ensure their careers remain intact by choosing safe options that make them look good.

“This is a common and often infuriating experience for a creative person… I’ve watched people with the most interesting — the most “out of the box” — ideas be ignored or ridiculed in favor of those who repeat an established solution… In fact, everyone I spoke with agreed on one thing — unexceptional ideas are far more likely to be accepted than wonderful ones.” (Inside the Box, People don’t actually like creativity. Jessica Olien)

How then can anyone confidently propose new ideas when (s)he is expected to adhere to outdated frameworks that restrict free thought and discourage disruptive thinking?

Most are Satisfied with Joining the Conversation vs. Leading it.

In brand strategy, a commonly overused practice is companies looking towards their competition to inspire innovative thinking. Instead of using these inputs to ideate bigger and better solutions, brands use them as determinants for how far their creative pursuits should go. This works to create and maintain an innovation vacuum- a space where products, ideas and services are only as innovative as the most forward-leaning brand in that space. Essentially, instead of running the race to get ahead, brands are content with simply doing enough to catch up to the category leader.

Unfortunately, this method has proven to be successful, especially for large, established brands whose internal operations have become routine and efficient or, put in other terms, slow and riddled with red tape. Brands that prefer catch-up innovation are able to avoid all the risks associated with trying something new while still being seen as “up-to-date”.

Overtime however, this approach becomes problematic as brand managers find themselves developing reactive strategies and constantly pivoting to capitalize on short term opportunities, an issue that was rated the second highest barrier to fostering creativity in organizations (Clients and Creativity). In today’s accelerated pace of cultural consumption, brands choosing to modify their strategies to meet the bare minimum of modernity are always, already behind.


Developing innovative brand strategies that make sense for business and that catch the attention of consumers requires leaders who are willing to cultivate solutions in unexpected ways. It is vital for innovative strategies to have internal as well as external flexibility. To do this correctly, companies must be willing to examine and reimagine the way they do business from the inside out.

1. From the point of hiring to the point of ideating new ideas, brand leaders must be able to interrogate their internal processes as well as their own biases, tendencies and habits when gathering, assessing and assigning value to new ideas and solutions from their teams.

2. They should also take into account how the greatest new ideas and inventions have historically come about in this country — often met with naysayers, doubt and uncertainty, but routinely applauded and celebrated when they work. There is a need to always push through. To be truly innovative, brand leaders have to be willing to take risks and bet on themselves while being comfortable with the prospect of failure.

3. Finally, in order for brand managers to do this well, companies must expand their perspectives and foster a culture that encourages and rewards unconventional thinking.

Without championing these factors, innovative thinking in the US will continue to slow or worse, increasingly create space for particular types of innovative thinking backed by only the most financially powerful or dominating voices in the room.

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