Go Ahead, Be Bold!

lightbulbI’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!