Learning to Take Risks

He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.   – Muhammad Ali
  Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When you think about your life – in both your personal and professional worlds – would you say that you are a risk taker? Are you comfortable with not knowing what may happen and possibly failing, or do you try to take the safe route?

I would say I have stayed on the “safer” side of things for most of my life. But as I move into less regulated industries at work, and also think about that age-old question of what I want to do when I grow up, I am starting to operate a bit outside of the box.

Fear of failure is not a crazy thing! It is scary to think that you may not succeed, and that you are putting all of this time, money, and effort into something that may wind up getting you nowhere. But innovation does not happen by following all of the rules and fitting into the pre-formed boxes that have been created for us by school, work, our families, and society. It is much more fun and exciting than that!

I recently had the opportunity to attend a few innovation sessions in Silicon Valley, where risk-taking has been rampant for years, and I was inspired! The message from those sessions was to understand what the customer wants or needs – whether she knows it or not – and then experiment, fail fast, and learn from your experience for next time. 

But as project managers, we are doing all that we can NOT to fail. As lean process design experts, we put checks in place to make sure failure does not happen – the constant pursuit of perfection. As former straight-A students, failing was not even in our spectrum of possibilities, or it was defined as getting a B+. (Ha!)

What it comes down to is understanding where you can take risks, and what the implications are. Ask yourself and your project stakeholders the below questions to help figure it out.

  • What are the goals of the project? How is success being defined? (Find your charter!)
  • Has anyone tried to solve your problem before, and failed or did not quite meet the objectives? Were there any lessons learned captured?
  • Does your project sponsor support experimentation? Why or why not?
  • Is your team innovative? If not, how can you get them to think outside the box?
  • Do you need money or resources? Do you need to get approval?
  • Are there systems in place that reward smart risk-taking? 
  • If your goal is to experiment, what do you want to learn?
  • If you are not successful, at what point will you acknowledge that fact, stop what you are doing, and take a different course?

Asking these questions to analyze the situation will help you understand how big a risk you can take. 

It may take people a while to feel comfortable not playing it safe, and that is okay. But if you, your team, or your company want to do something truly extraordinary, you need to take risks.

The worst thing you can do is fail... and then learn from it.