December 4, 2009 | awadler

Helicopter Managers

Risk-taking is an undervalued asset in today’s business environment. Even as shattered investor confidence, reduced consumer spending and ever-declining employee morale have all forced executives to take pause and reassess their approach to business, innovation remains a hallmark of a strong reputation.

But, has the fragile environment created “helicopter” managers, in the vein of helicopter parents? Leaders who will swoop in to protect a team from its own potential failure before letting risk turn to innovation? It’s true. Innovation often does come with some risk but the greater risk to an organization is having its staff bubble-wrapped to the point where creativity is stifled. A significant part of fostering a culture of innovation is to develop a method for enabling calculated risk. Just as you wouldn’t allow a child to cross a street for the first time on their own, you can partner employees on projects with those who have taken risks before and know how to look both ways before crossing.

Similarly, an employee who embarks on a project without knowing the potential scenarios that could lead to failure, are as ill-prepared as a teenager who drives without ever having a driving lesson. A helicopter parent will save the child from harm by never letting them behind the wheel of the car – but the child will never learn to drive. A helicopter manager will protect the company from harm, but by never letting a risky project get off the ground may impede the company’s growth.
Following are a few tips to foster an environment that grows through calculated risk:

  • Reward smart failure. So maybe a project failed but, it failed because it was stopped before it could do irreparable harm OR it did no harm but it was the right project at the wrong time. Celebrate the inspiration and hard work while using the failure as a teaching moment for the organization, all the while praising the project leader for taking the risk for what they hoped would be the benefit of the company.
  • Communicate success. When a risk was taken and success achieved, celebrate. But don’t just pop the champagne cork, talk about why it succeeded, the research that led to its success and the efforts taken to ensure success…again, a teachable moment.
  • Create an innovation lab…an environment in which Ideas can be floated and nurtured. Sometimes ideas can’t take root because the owner of the idea doesn’t know how to bring it to fruition. Creating a place where seeds can be planted and sown will help to bring ideas to life. This can be an actual innovation lab OR a place to idea jam on a corporate intranet site.
  • Avoid the inclination to helicopter in to protect. Instead, be a parachute, a means to a soft-landing through guidance, reality checking and resource sharing.

Ame Wadler can be reached at awadler@mww.com

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