Building a culture of productive risk-taking

The truly wimpy have already written off this article because they are afraid of risk, so you are likely already beating them in the marketplace, or soon will be. Investment is risk, innovation is risk, creativity is risk, growth is risk. These are things that organizations and leaders say they want to include in their enterprise, but risk is a word they shy away from. This needs to change.

In order to encourage risk-taking that is productive in an organization, the environment needs to be right. This is where leadership is required. 

What does ‘almost’ look like?

When you take a risk, you don’t always succeed. It doesn’t mean that you fail; sometimes you just get “almost” the result you were looking for.

It is critical to understand what it looks like within the organization when something doesn’t quite reach the result. Is the team punished, embarrassed publicly, ignored, no longer trusted? Or is there acceptance, an ability to learn from mistakes, a quickening of the bond between the team so that they can avoid the issue in the future? 

Is calculated risk discussed and shared?

When an opportunity or challenge develops in an organization, one of the most powerful training grounds for the team is the discussion of the options available. When we broaden the team that gets exposure to the “what-if” discussions, we are training them on the critical thinking of risk-taking.

Within the discussions of the various options, the pros and cons and the comfort levels of each, employees get insight into the organization’s tolerance for various types of risks. Hearing the early data and seeing the decision-making process unfold will allow their future decisions to be more calculated to the balance of the enterprise’s principles. 

Innovation is risk

The true nature of innovation, solving a requirement in a new way, is taking a risk. An improvement is just doing something better, but an innovation is changing the game.

Sometimes people don’t like change. Sometimes the innovation is ready before the market is. But progress depends on innovation; giving an environment that allows risk-taking is critical to innovation.

It is never enough to only give the R&D department the risk-taking reins. Allowing voices to be heard throughout an organization fosters engagement. 

Does risk-taking require the death of accountability?

Contrary to the risk naysayer voice, accountability is a key element of risk-taking. Knowing where ideas are coming from and who owns resources and decision-making frees the innovators to navigate the organization and get progress pushed through.

Accepting risk does not mean mistakes are swept under the carpet and disregarded. It means the risk-takers are recognized for the bravery, tapped for their knowledge and when necessary, called on the carpet if they are reckless.

Risk and recklessness should never be considered the same thing. Accountability is the guardian of responsible risk-taking. 

In order to progress, choices are constantly being made. Recognizing that millions of decisions are constantly in flux aids in developing a productive risk environment. Accepting and constructively discussing the risks and results will allow for continual improvements to be made throughout the organization. And sometimes … we just have to lighten up. 

Lois Melbourne is the co-founder and former CEO of Aquire, a software company in the talent management space. After selling Aquire, she is exploring options with her co-founder and husband, while working on a series of children’s books about careers you can follow worthy of the things you love to do.