4 ways to stop worrying and embrace creative risks

August 11, 2015, 5:00 PM UTC

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization? is written by Laura Pincus Hartman, professor of business ethics at Boston University.

Creativity, innovation, imagination – these elements are often the precursors to change in our workplaces, and in a world that already offers so many uncertainties, it’s no wonder that they might not occur naturally for some of our colleagues.

Inspiring creativity is necessary to compete in today’s breathlessly evolving marketplace, and research shows developing a creative and focused imagination is key to creating a more ethical corporate culture. The value of creativity in a marketing campaign or a product design challenge may be self-evident. But how does creativity play a role in ethical decision-making in business, and how do we enhance this skill?

Consider the tried-and-true Trolley scenario, most often used to demonstrate the tension in decision-making between satisfying the majority and following one’s sense of right and wrong. In a version of that hypothetical, a train is barreling down a track toward five strangers. If you do nothing, the train will strike these five people. However, you are standing in front of a lever that allows you to reroute the train to a track where only one person – another stranger – is standing. The train is approaching within seconds. Do you reroute the train?

See also: Why you absolutely need creative employees

In every single circumstance where I have asked business executives or students to respond to this same question, the response is either to reroute the train or not. Obvious? You are given a choice of A or B, so you choose A or B. Yet, is that what we want from our colleagues? No. The most ethical choice might not be one of the options we are offered.

One of the most critical elements of the ethical decision-making process is imagining alternatives. When we offer our colleagues A or B, we want them instead to consider A, B, C, D and E and then come back to us with the most strategic, effective and ethical choice for our organization.

Unleashing our creativity in responding to challenges – ethical or otherwise – involves seeing things with new eyes, and sometimes with a bit of courage. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • We are all under pressure to perform, and coming up with alternatives takes time. Scenario planning and pre-imagining ethical challenges puts you one step ahead when real problems do arise.
  • Creativity thrives when we are confident, but one should make a conscious effort to seek out critics, too. Our imagination is challenged when we need to satisfy naysayers. One way to help that conversation along is by encouraging a more diverse workforce, so more diverse experiences are brought to the conversation.
  • If you know that you have a tendency to ‘fly to the familiar,’ try taking smaller risks when the stakes are not as high. This will increase your confidence in your decision-making capacity down the road.
  • Continually seek out information, and learn from alternate perspectives and theoretical frameworks that agitate and disturb your comfort zone.

So what is the right answer to the Trolley scenario? Of course, there is no right answer. But did you consider yelling to the single individual on the track to get out of the way and then flipping the lever?

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