Go Ahead, Be Bold!

Edison Blub

I’m sure you’ve all heard that old saying, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” That adage applies just as well to project managers where ‘bold’ equals ‘risk-taking’.  I’m also sure you’ve all attended at least one management pep talk about taking risks (if so, you may now roll your eyes). Despite all the rhetoric encouraging calculated risk-taking, it is the rare PM who has not been severly punished for doing just that when the risk taken ends in disaster.

“No Risk, No Reward,” we are all told, but despite copious amounts of hard data supporting this assertion, a good risk that fails never goes unpunished, let alone rewarded. No wonder, then, so many of us are risk-avoiders. Strange, isn’t it, since all great achievements involve taking some and often huge risks.  It can take may failures to achieve one great success. A wonderful (and oft quoted) example is Edison’s quest for the ideal lightbulb filament.  He had a spectular number of failures (6,000+) before he found the answer…which as you know has been an amazing success (only now, more than 125 years later, being replace by those awful CFLs ;-).

Unfortunately, it is human nature to punish failure and you don’t need a Ph.D. in spacecraft propulsion to understand the forces at work. People rise to the top of an organization based on their successes, not their failures. By completing the project on time, closing that big deal, or solving that tough technical challenge, we move the company forward and are rewarded for it. It is the success, not the many preceding failures, that gets recognized in the company newsletter, department review, and performance appraisal.  Failures are perceived as impediments to success, so we treat them as a bad thing. Nobody talks about their failures with pride. To make matters worse, we are discouraged from spending any quality time learning from our failures as we must immediately get to work our our next task or project with our competition breathing down our neck. (Do you ever take the time study post-project reviews from past projects?  Yeah, what post-project review?) The unintended message to everyone is: “Go fast; Take risks; Just don’t screw up!” The result is an organization filled with paranoid, risk-averse people.

What can we do to encourage more risk-taking in our teams? Here are a few tips that, if followed by a risk-taker (that would be you), can help move a risk-averse organization toward a more risk-tolerant one (notice I didn’t say risk-embracing, or even risk-accepting…I’m a pragmatist):

1) Keep track of risks taken that result in failures as much as you do successes. Look for and document the benefits or lessons-learned for each of them and make them known in project meetings and management reviews;

2) In addition to the list of successes we all include in the annual performance reviews for each of our team members, ask your folks to give you a list of risks taken that ended in failure, along with the lessons learned from them. Ask them also to tell you how those failures contributed to the company’s bottom line in a positive way;

3) Reward calculated (not reckless) risk-taking that results in failures and good learnings. Use the same mechanisms that successes are rewarded in your company (lunches, stock, cash, praise, promotions, raises, etc);

4) Celebrate the most spectacular failures in a big way, but be sure to make the lessons-learned and benefits clear, lest you get a team that creates failures just to get recognition and a free lunch (oh, sorry, I let my risk-averse side peek through);

5) And, don’t forget to celebrate those risks taken that result in successes…obviously.

Go ahead, be BOLD!


8 thoughts on “Go Ahead, Be Bold!”

  1. Pingback: Links for Feb 15 2009 | Eric D. Brown - Technology, Strategy, People & Projects

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    Thanks for this inspiring article, Loyal! Our Global Management Consulting Group (a collaboration between consultants in Silicon Valley and a company in Tokyo called ALC Education) has grown to the point where we can no longer keep track of what we’re all doing through a string of email and a shared document folder. Searching for a twig to hold on to before I drowned in the rising tide of communication required to keep us all stumbling forward together, I recently have been pushing the use of a wiki to share information among our growing team, split between Japan and the US, and have had a string of failures. First people unfamiliar with wikis had their email InBox fill with wiki change notices, then we had to change wikis after people had started to learn how to use the first one, then people couldn’t log on to the new wiki, causing huge frustration in me and everyone else, then document sharing was screwed up, then we had to change the way we logged in, yadda, yadda, yadda . . . Yesterday I met with my 2 best wiki supporters and asked “What sucked about this?” They gave me a big whallop around the head for lots of the above problems, and suggestions for how we could roll out new technology tools more smoothly in the future. But at the end, instead of blaming me, they both said “The wiki is really cool!”.

    So, we “failed forward” in the direction of something that is really transforming how we share information and communicate in our organization, lurching from problem to problem, kinda like Tarzan swinging vine-to-vine through the jungle. Instead of feeling bad about the experience and hesitating to introduce the next change to our business process, I feel encouraged by their attitude.

    Mind you, these are fairly junior employees with a pretty low status in the company, but to me they were exhibiting some of the best characteristics of a great leader when giving feedback: REWARD INITIATIVE (praise, recognition, appreciation) and SHAPE JUDGMENT (through course-correcting feedback about how to behave/talk differently in the future). Wow! We could all learn from their example.

    Failing in the direction of my goals, Kimberly

  3. Agreed! That works very well indeed.
    Qtask officially awards each year the
    employee who did the most embarrassing
    mistake for the company. This trophee
    is given during our end of the year gathering
    the entire company and it is actually a
    lot of fun.

    That makes everybody aware that mistake
    and error occur even when you do your
    best. The second teaching point is that
    as a team we have usually found the
    solution to recover or mitigate the situation.

    Over the years no employee who has received
    the award has never been fired.

    But nobody never got the award twice

    We learn more from our mistake than
    from our success; the point is however
    not to fail all the time.

  4. Good points Loyal. This reminds me of a short series I did on Opportunity Management, or the lack thereof, that occurs in organizations.

    It sounds like what you’re really talking about is opportunity management when you relate it to projects. For projects that actually do any sort of risk management, the majority seem to be focused only on the negative risks and mitigating, avoiding, or accepting the downside risk.

    I’m struggling with this a bit right now in my own organization. A risk was identified that is really an opportunity to realize some cost savings. Some people see no value in revising it as an opportunity, and some think we should just take it off the risk register. Myself and one other individual are trying to reinforce the fact that if we view this as an opportunity, we may be able to ENHANCE or EXPLOIT it to our advantage. I’m finding that the old “risk management is only negative” mindset is very, very hard to change.

    Josh Nankivel

    1. User Avatar

      I agree, Josh. Known risks are usually covered in the risk mitigation section of the project plans. What I’m thinking about is more like what Pawel talked about and you mention in your second paragraph: a new opportunity to make a significant improvement in some aspect of the project or product being developed, but taking advantage of it involves risk-taking. Depending on the size of the risk, this can translate into someone’s career being on the line. Pawel is lucky in that he has supportive management for calculated risk-taking. Many of us are not that lucky as our management chain is the product of years of negative reinforcement for risk-taking behavior. So, many great chances are never taken.

      What I often do with newly discovered opportunities is to add them to the feature list in the proper priority position. If the value this new thing brings is greater than that for an item on the bottom of the ‘must’ list, then that last item (or more) might be bumped to make time to execute that new opportunity.

      Good luck with your struggle.

  5. User Avatar

    Personally I found one thing particulary encouraging me to take risks – when I had a boss over my head who understood and supported that approach. I could come to my manager and say:
    Let’s do it. I believe we’ll succeed. However if we fail a half of the company will sink. I’m ready to take consequences anyway.
    As an answer I could hear he was with me. I didn’t expected praise or recognition and I got none of them although we’ve succeeded after all, but I’m still happy.

    1. User Avatar

      Exactly! Opportunities present themselves throughout every project. Some are good, some are not so good. Bold, risk-taking PMs will take a chance with the better opportunities, even though they may sink the company or blow the budget. If we always stick to the original plan and ignore those occasional tremendous opportunities, we’ll get run over by companies with bolder PMs and supportive management in their teams.

      Keep being bold, Pawel!

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