Risk (and failure). What it is and how to invite it

Roger Kaufman, PhD
Kaufman & Associates

Risk. Even hearing the word stings for it can bring failure. Risk conjures up all of the real and imagined shame, embarrassment, and denial responses form our past, so we tend to avoid it and not shift to sensible risk. We can do strategic planning and then strategic management so that risk is balanced with reward. Let’s see.

Risk comes from a noticed gap between our objectives and our performance that we do not close. The more public the notice of risk, the more we want to avoid it. Or deny it.

While most sane people say they want to avoid bad risk, they usually invite it by what they use, do, produce, and deliver. And we invite it by how we think about problems and opportunities in the first place.

Inviting risk.

So how do we go about inviting risk inviting unnecessary risks we don’t really have to take? Here are some guidelines:

1. Do not be precise and rigorous about objectives. Join the conventional wisdom that believes that “there are just some things that are not measurable; that are “intangible.” By taking this posture, people fail to get agreement on what is to be delivered and how accomplishment will be measured; where they are headed and how to tell when they have arrived. This will allow you to argue that what you are doing and delivering is worthy since there are no criteria by which it calibrate success, or even to determine if progress is on target. Examples could include “be the most efficient, sales department in our business.” Or “provide timely and convenient customer service.” Of course, you or no one else knows what these statements mean, but they sound good.

By not getting agreement on where to head and how to tell when you arrive with your internal and external clients, you can stay convinced that the criteria that gets applied and what is delivered will be just fine. All people know that politics are never used for making judgments about efforts and results, and thus depending on evaluations by others who also don’t have performance criteria seams simple and safe, or at least comfortable (for the moment).

And while you are at it, be sure you include the means and resources in your objectives. Write statements such as “using the PeopleHard software, we will …” or “using 6 Sigma we will …” Doing so allows you to pick solutions (one software package among other possibilities. Or a quality process) before you know where you are headed and why you want to get there. This saves you from selecting and resources on the basis of the results you want to achieve… just do whatever is comfortable for you and your people. “One-stop shopping” for the ways and means to do a job is easier, faster, and conventional. Why limit yourself to having to match your solutions and resources against your objectives? Blurring means (how-to-do-its and resources) with ends (what results most be delivered) gives quick comfort that thinks are getting done, risky, but comfortable.

2. Assume that the more that is spent on something, the better the results. Conventional wisdom has it that the more that is spent on something –education, training, facilities, support, salaries –the netter results. Each day we read reports of efforts based on input costs, such as participant expenditures for training, hardware for training, etc. aligning ourselves with the popular belief that the more we pay, the better it is. To truly invite risk, assume that the more we spend the greater will be the results we get.

Want more proof that we take pride in the amount we spend? Look how often we brag about how much we have paid for our new car. And the more we spend on education, training, salaries, buildings, infrastructure, the more we get back, right? Risky, but comfortable.

3. Assume that the better we do an individual job or task, the greater will be the contribution that makes to organizational success. Put emphasis on how we do a job: the time we spend on it, the efficiency of our work and activities and assume that their will be a positive payoff in terms of the value we added.

Further, assume that we can, ourselves, only control our immediate activities and let the results and consequences of what we and others do to others, higher-ups, and even the external clients; we assume that getting an individual job done well will certainly deliver useful results within and outside the organization. We assume Mega (societal) results and consequences but never make sure there is alignment and linkages between what we use, do, produce, and the consequences of what we deliver. Just do the job right… such complexities are annoying and thus should be overlooked or ignored, or assumed.

Ignore Peter Drucker’s advice that “it is more important to what is right that it is to do the job right.” After all, we can only control our immediate tasks and assignment and we cannot do anything about what goes on with what we deliver. Powerlessness, real or imagined, is important in risk (and failure). Let complex issues of what people most know and be able to do to add value up the value chain be assumed, and hope for the best. And when we manage we can assume that good results for ourselves and our external clients will be delivered.

Don’t be concerned that everything an organization uses, does, produces, and delivers must add value to all stakeholders, including our shared society. This is complex and time consuming. Look after only your patch and let others worry about theirs. And certainly never bring up any views or ideas that are outside of your assigned job; do what you are assigned to do and nothing more.

If you are unfortunate enough to be part of a planning team, to really invite risk, go under the impression that all planning is “strategic” and don’t differentiate between strategic (societal), tactical (organizational) and operational (individual jobs and tasks) planning and management. Don’t worry about all of the parts of your organization-and what it uses, does, and produces-going together. And while you are at it, call all approaches a systems approach and assume that everything will integrate.

Don’t worry a bit about the overall system and adding value to external clients, including your neighbors, risky but comfortable.

4. Assume hat needs and wants are the same. Give people what they want and don’t get into any conversation of what they could really use. Ignore a definition of “need” as a gap between current results and desired “results” and see and use “need” ask something that you or others want, or really want. Use “need” as a verb, just like just about everyone else. Say “we need this” and “we need that” and jump into solutions and activities before know the results we should deliver.

Don’t challenge anyone on why they want (or they will use “need” to make it sound imperative) something. Give them what they ask for. Don’t risk bringing on an alternative that is uncomfortable.

By confusing needs and wants, you never have to go to trouble of collecting data about the gaps between current results and consequences and required wants (needs), and you won’t have the criteria for evaluation so failure doesn’t show up until it is too late. Just swing in to action with program, projects, and activities and assume that what people want is what you should provide. No messy assessment, data collection, prioritizing, evaluating, continual improvement…

One way to get your directions is by designing a needs assessment that asks people to tell you what they want. “Organizational needs assessments” do this all of the time. By starting your work with the directions of what people want you can pretend that you are simply being responsive to your clients.

Notice that this combines well with the first tip on risk? Project your job and personal safety at all costs. Don’t threaten, don’t enlighten. Be safe. To get along, go along. And never collect and use data. Data that is collected could be embarrassing later if what you did and delivered had no impact on the measurable improvement of the stakeholders, risky, but comfortable.

Now just one more sure-fire way to invite and deliver risk and the failure that goes with it.

5. Don’t evaluate. Never ask if you got the results you set out to deliver. Enlisting risk advise from the four above, you can talk about how hard you worked, how much time and money you spent, how happy you are with the smooth implementation… talk about your means and resources and don’t get embroiled in proving that what you did and accomplished was worth the time, money and effort. If you don’t evaluate, you don’t have to know what to keep and what to revise so you can keep on doing what you want. Risky, but comfortable.

Avoiding unnecessary risk (and subsequent failure)

If you want to reduce risk and improve success, then just do the opposite of the above. Risk is part of personal and organizational life. But you don’t have to take unnecessary risks.