Engendering a risk-taking culture

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Business philosophers, book writers, keynote speakers, and basically anybody with an opinion on the subject will say that one key to success for an organization is to foster and encourage creativity and curiosity.  That’s surely a good start, but where the rubber really meets the road and awesome things start happening is when members of an organization truly feel free to experiment and take risks.  Of course as with any other theory, simply talking about it doesn’t get it done.  The real show of success is breakthrough ideas and actions that are the hallmark of a culture that really does embrace risk taking.

Too many business leaders (and not just in business…in many walks of life, really) talk a big game about risk taking and entrepreneurship within their organizations but don’t really work toward fostering this character in ways that really provide a good foundation for success.  As with so many marginal leaders, this comes from talking the talk but not really embracing what it takes to turn it into action.  Failure is punished publicly and discussion about alternate solutions aren’t tolerated.  Just get it done, they’ll say.  But then, all too often leaders will intone that they want—even insist—that their teams take chances and look for opportunities to break away from the pack.  But when they don’t see those results and instead go through quarter after quarter of middling performance without any tremendous successes, they far too rarely realize it’s them keeping the group back.

Emerson said that “what you do speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you’re saying.”  Leaders need to take to heart that those who look up to them (whether from general admiration or simply because they’re further down on the food-chain) are always watching.  And what they see being rewarded and punished at work makes a greater impression than trite sayings about how important ‘innovation’ is to the organization.  So these leaders need to ask themselves:  How do I respond to failure?  When someone tries something and it doesn’t work, what’s my reaction?  Are failures punished?  Or are they treated as opportunities for learning?

Naturally there’s a bottom-line and a company can’t succeed if they’re always failing.  Also, we mustn’t encourage carelessness or flippancy regarding resources.  But a top-down fanaticism about hitting targets no matter what, with constant focus on an arbitrary calculable goal (especially goals that aren’t explained properly with sufficient context) doesn’t foster an atmosphere of innovation or creativity.  If all leadership meetings center around dollars and cents, about hitting a budget goal and ensuring costs are kept within specific limits, guess what you’re going to encourage?  Hitting budgets, lowering costs, and meeting goals.  There’s little space in there for innovation and risk taking.  If questions leaders pose to those presenting to them in these forums are about why they’re not at target, when they’ll get to target, and what it’ll take to get there, it’ll surely drive focus and concentration on these ends.  (And to be sure, there are times when that’s necessary.)  But leaders who operate this way shouldn’t be surprised when new solutions don’t emerge and new ideas don’t flourish…even if they talk a good game about how important it is to be nimble and dynamic and innovative.  What gets measured gets minded, they say, and what gets rewarded and attention is what people are going to busy themselves doing.

Leaders who want their organizations to break away and devise newer and better solutions must engender cultures that reward risk-taking and don’t get mired in day-to-day goals.  Goals are important and you need a way to measure success.  But goals without any context become targets in and of themselves; organizations with nothing more than these goals will do whatever is necessary to hit them, especially if the leadership shows interest in nothing else.

  • Make your organization’s goals aspirational, not tied to the means of achieving them, and always in context as to why they’re important.  Then tell your teams that it’s up to them how to accomplish what you’re trying to achieve and get out of the way while they surprise you with their creativity.
  • Don’t punish mistakes and missteps committed with the good-faith intent of reaching the goals.
  • Encourage your team members to learn from those mistakes and find out why they didn’t work all while concentrating on working together toward your team’s vision.

(Originally Published 20200505)

– LtCol Nicholas Zeisler, CCXP, LSSBB, CSM

– Principal, Zeisler Consulting

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