Taking Risks: Going Forward and Stepping into the Unknown

on October 16, 2019

One of the things I like to do in my free time is home projects. Some are small; others are fairly big endeavors. They typically involve woodworking and have included things like a patio table, a slat bed for my daughter, a playhouse (I’ll never do that again!) and, most recently, outdoor planters.

I mentioned to a colleague that I’d decided not to paint the insides of the planters, even though I knew this would limit their lifespan because the wood would likely rot quicker. She was surprised that I’d skipped this step, considering all the hard work I’d put in to make the planters just as I’d envisioned them. To me, the benefits of planting right away outweighed the benefits of extending their lifespan – despite the fact that now I’ll have fewer years to enjoy the planters.

I’m sure some of you bristled at this decision. After all, if you invest your time and energy in building something, don’t you want to do everything just right?

Not me. I have a lot on my plate at home and at work. In the time it would’ve taken to paint the planters, I knew I could finish a lot of other stuff I needed to get done, so I was okay with the idea that I might have to buy or build new planters in a couple years. While my colleague was surprised by my decision, not painting the inside of the planters was a risk I was willing to take and is what I believe was the best decision.

What Kind of a Decision-Maker Are You?

When you consider this scenario from a work standpoint, we make similar decisions every day. Do I spend more time on this one project to get it just right? Or do I have what I need to achieve the outcomes I want without investing more time and money? Some of it is calculated risk. Some of it is priority based. Some of it is resource driven.

Whether we’re individual contributors, front-line managers, or executive leaders, this decision-making process is incredibly important. Some folks have no problem prioritizing what to do and when. For others, it’s incredibly difficult. From “analysis paralysis” and “overthinking” to “playing it fast and loose” and “utopia myopia,” people run the gamut in how they function. Often, people make a decision to finish a project or move on to the next based on:

  • The company culture. For example, “We are a risk-averse company,” or, “We applaud and reward risk takers here.”
  • Personality. For example, “Risky endeavors fuel my energy,” or, “I break out in a rash at the mere thought of trying something new.”
  • Budget. For example, “We could spend this chunk of the budget on the project at hand, but I’m not 100% sure we’ll get the return we want,” or, “I’ve set aside a chunk of the budget so we can try some new things.”
  • Career choices. For example, “I’m willing to risk my job on this project because I believe it is a game changer for this business,” or, “There is no way I’m risking my job for this project.”

In some instances, it pays to be risky. In others, it doesn’t. When it comes to risk-taking and how to make the right decisions, there are several theories and strategies. Drawing on my colleagues’ expertise and experiences in helping organizations and leaders achieve their goals, here are suggestions on how to make the right decision, regardless of the type of decision-maker you are innately.

Taming the Decision-Making Beast

We find that 90% of teams who want to elevate their performance and take their “team game” to the next level focus on improving their team decision-making. However, here’s the challenge: You can have a group of people who have individual IQs of 160, yet have a collective team IQ of 22! A good explanation for this sub-optimization of team performance is that individual members put their own agendas ahead of the team’s agenda. The second-biggest contributor is the inability to think, learn, and make decisions as a team.

After helping many executives right their decision-making wrongs, there is a process that, if worked like a muscle, can build the skills and muscle memory to improve decision-making and business outcomes.

Step 1: Determine who needs to make the decision

Step 2: Frame the decision

Step 3: Lay out the facts

Step 4: Ask clarifying questions (and only clarifying questions)

Step 5: Share concerns and recommendations

Step 6: Decision time!

Step 7: Confirm commitment to carrying out the decision

Step 8: Share the decision with those impacted and execute against what was decided

These eight steps can be incredibly helpful for anyone who gets stumped on how to help a group make the right decision. However, this process doesn’t cover all of the decision-making dilemmas. Another big challenge when it comes to decision-making is risk. How risky can a decision be? For me, not painting the inside of the planters was a safe risk. There are safe risks in business, too. While this might sound scary, there are guidelines for this scenario, too.

No Risk, No Culture Reward

Often, leaders are okay with their people being risk averse – at least when it comes to executing with reliability and consistency. The irony is that by not encouraging their people to take smart, calculated risks, leaders and managers hurt their organizations by playing it too safe. Risk-taking leads to ideas and breakthroughs that can drive new business. As a matter of fact, the only way to be successful is to “fail forward” on purpose. Big S’s (successes) are only possible with Small F’s (failures).

Five Ways to Embrace Safe Risk-Taking

Here are five ways to help your organization become one that celebrates safe risk-taking.

  1. Expect (and praise) failure. Let people know that while you go on this new journey – while you’re taking the risk of doing something new – failure is expected.
  2. Empower “safe” risk-taking. Leaders need to demonstrate what a smart, calculated risk looks like because most people just won’t do it on their own.
  3. Seek out challengers. Encourage your people to step back and look at the things they’ve “always done this way.” Is the way we’ve always done it really the best way?
  4. Provide support. Leaders should partner with their people to provide air cover when they challenge the status quo and take a risk to see what kind of results they can achieve.
  5. Create trust. Leaders need to foster an environment where vulnerability, honesty, and safety are the norm.

Decision-Making Is a Skill – Take Time to Master It

When you boil it all down, you realize that decision-making isn’t easy and often doesn’t come naturally for all of us. When you involve a team of people, who each have their own perspectives and goals, you amplify your decision-making challenges by a lot. However, decision-making is a skill, just like being a great speaker or strategist. The steps and guidelines included here are great assets that can help you hone your decision-making skills so you can lead your teams to the best decision, regardless of the personalities involved. Embrace smart risk-taking as a means to discover a new innovation that might just radically improve your business. To me, not painting the inside of the planters wasn’t me falling short on the project; it was me employing my decision-making prowess. It wasn’t my first safe risk and it certainly won’t be my last – at home or at work.

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