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Want innovators? Create a safe space first.

We hear so many employers and educators talk about wanting to foster a culture of innovation and risk taking, but yet so much of it is lip service. What gets in the way?

Read our commentary piece for Channel NewsAsia Commentary (23 March 2019): Want to raise a responsible child (or nation)? Create a safe space first

Singaporeans need a mindset of radical ownership to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution, says Forest Wolf’s Crystal Lim-Lange and Dr Gregor Lim-Lange.

SINGAPORE: “My parents told me that finding my passion is important.”, the university student I was talking to said.

“They made me try fencing, community work, archery and tennis.”

“How’s that going?” I asked. “They’re still looking for it.”, he said with a shrug.

Later on that day at a career event, I moderated a panel where employers from diverse sectors gave unanimous feedback that the biggest difficulty in doing business in Singapore was finding local talent who were pro-active, self-aware and driven.

Is the education system to blame for over-structuring and over-teaching?


When we set projects for our students, the first question we get is invariably: “How many words should I write?”

When we tell them “However many words as it takes to answer the question successfully. You decide.”, most students recoil with horror, unused to such a lack of guidance.

Yet this is the ambiguous reality of modern life that awaits them. Your clients aren’t going to tell you how many pages your proposal should be. No model answers await you in the world of work.

Over-protective parents also have their part to play in fostering a generation unused to taking ownership of their lives.

Employers are desperate for Singaporeans who will accept overseas stints, which can often mean a fast-tracked career. Yet, we often encounter parents who discourage their children from venturing overseas for fear that they may encounter risks and hardship.

Although it is a natural instinct to want to protect our youth, a disruptive future of Artificial Intelligence and automation will demand resilience and resourcefulness from their generation and perhaps test them more than any other generation before.


As we look towards the fourth Industrial Revolution where our youth are set to change careers perhaps a dozen times or more over their 100+ year lifespan, they must pick up the pen and become the architects of their future and own their own development.

One of the most important mindsets that both our youth and our talent need to cultivate is that of radical ownership - being responsible for doing what needs to be done rather than waiting to be told, and taking responsibility for the results they create.

A mindset of radical ownership is the opposite of entitlement and playing the blame game.

It is not “nobody told me” or “nobody taught me how to …”, and that’s why I haven’t succeeded.

Radical ownership is making the choice to be the primary force responsible for your growth.

It is not “what will you give me if I do it” or “is this part of my Key Performance Indicators”?


Taking charge of your personal growth is not an easy choice. There are many good reasons for wanting to stay passive or blame others for the results you’re getting or not getting from life.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to being able to develop this mindset is this question. Do I feel safe enough?

For you to step up and own your challenges, try different things, make yourself vulnerable and open to criticism, you need to feel safe first.

There have been numerous research studies demonstrating that in cultures where psychological safety is present, performance is remarkably better. Google’s Project Aristotle is a famous case where researchers analysed 180 teams and found that, surprisingly, the most important factor of successful teams was psychological safety. Much more so than consensus, skills or rewards.

Psychologists from MIT and Harvard Alex Pentland and Amy Edmondson have found that our brains are hardwired for safety. We are built to require lots of reassurance and safety signals to shift our brains from worrying about danger to unleashing our potential.

So consider how psychologically safe is Singapore? We are a self-admitted nation of complainers, criticisers and occasionally even outraged online mobs.

Just recently, a 19-year old student who expressed her honest views about travelling internationally was subjected to a torrent of cruel and personal online comments, criticising her naivete and incapability.

It may be true that our youth are over-reliant and entitled, but if you’re trying to encourage them to develop, the worst thing that you can do is to undermine their sense of safety.


We need to simultaneously balance letting go of our inclination to over-structure and over-teach our youth, while also creating a safe space for them to try out different things and give them honest feedback.

Here are some suggestions developing radical ownership and empowerment.

1. Own your choices. Instead of saying “I have to”, say “I choose to” or “I get to”.

Instead of “I have to get up early to attend this class”, reframing as “I get to attend an interesting course” focuses your mind on the fact that it is your choice and is a more empowering perspective.

2. Perform an audit of your assumptions, beliefs and mindsets.

What is standing between you and the success that you would like in your life? Write down all your answers as they come. I’m too old, I’m too shy, I’m not creative enough, or that only people of a certain type succeed. And for each belief, challenge if it is actually true, or if it is an old, outdated belief that no longer serves you.

3. Keep a “To Learn” list of skills and mindsets that you would like to develop.

Grow your curiosity muscle by constantly seeking out opportunities for learning. And regularly evaluate if you are too entrenched in your comfort zone or if you’re pushing your limits sufficiently.

For parents or leaders:

1. Embody the change that you want to see and watch out for giving mixed messages that signal danger.

One common scenario we see in Singapore is senior management who claim they value innovation and risk-taking, but yet send out conflicting messages such as not wanting to have any client complaints about new procedures.

2. Clearly spell out your risk-taking policy and create a safe space for experimentation.

Another common misconception is that if you reward risk-taking, it is tantamount to encouraging failure and danger.

Here, it is important to emphasise that risks and rules fall on a spectrum.

At one end are rules that are not to be trifled with, such as rules that are vital for safety or ethical rules (e.g. insider trading), but on the other extreme, there are mild risks that such as speaking up during a meeting, suggesting a different idea, disagreeing with a course of action, where the worst outcome if things didn’t work out is that you’ve learned something and perhaps sustained a little bruise to your ego. These risks well worth experimenting with in the pursuit of self-improvement.

The quest to upgrade the skills of our entire nation need not just be driven out of grim fear of being replaced by robots. Rather, it’s equally important to inspire our talent, from youth to adult learners, see the joy in unlocking their full potential and living in a more empowered way, while creating a safe space for all of us to push our boundaries and expand our growth.

Crystal Lim-Lange and Dr Greg Lim-Lange are founders of Forest Wolf, a future-readiness consultancy.

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