In a highly competitive industry where every company is filled with really smart people, product offerings continually leapfrog each other, and excellence in execution is an ever-present focus, sustainable winning advantage comes down to one factor that is hard to manage – a company’s ability to take risks. I’m not talking about the big bets where risk is considered explicitly; I mean the everyday risks that make the difference between executing on autopilot or feeling the adrenaline surge that comes from going for it.
The difficulty with the term “risk-taking” is that the term “risk” is highly subjective. I personally find skydiving to be a very risky activity and you won’t find me with a parachute on my back anytime soon. Many skydivers would disagree. People analyze their own ability to take risks through the lens of their own risk profile. So, if you ask someone if he or she takes risks, the answer is inevitably, “Of course I take risks. And when I don’t, it’s because others won’t let me.” One way to try to get around this inherent bias is to provide a rather detailed definition of smart risk-taking. Even then, it is still difficult to judge our risk tolerance from inside ourselves.
On the other hand, the notion of experimenting is much easier to grasp. To experiment means to try something in an attempt to create a particular outcome. When we conduct an experiment, we don’t know what the outcome will be. We have a hypothesis. We test it out, and we observe a result. If it’s not the result we’re looking for, then we amend either our hypothesis or the experiment, and we try it again. Eventually, we hope to succeed. With each iteration, we learn more about our assumptions. As we do so, we refine our methods and discover the consequences. By the time we reach success, we have learned much, adjusted much, and become more effective at achieving the desired result. Even if the experiment ultimately fails, it is still valuable because we learn what doesn’t work and get closer to the answers we seek.
If we interpret our notion of experimenting to mean “experimenting and flirting with failure,” then it should be clear that what we intend is to position exploration for pushing the limits of what’s possible. Experimenters in this area have few peers and their discoveries can become breakthroughs. This is where we stretch ourselves and the systems in which we operate. And this is where smart risk-taking lives. If we want to lead in our industry, if we want to create breakthrough results, this is where WE must live as we actively engage in smart risk-taking.
So instead of thinking about taking smart risks, think about experimenting… and flirting with failure. What if you treat everything you do as an experiment? Would you take it any less seriously? Probably not. More importantly, how might experimenting change your perception of your work? Might it become more interesting? Possibly. And how might it change your perception of what’s possible? There is NO LIMIT.
So, go for it! Experiment. Adjust. Learn. Try again. And let us know how it goes. We will all learn from each other. Breakthrough may be just one experiment ahead!