Monday, July 30, 2012

Why We Don't Take Risks

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I recently had a reason to re-review the four principles of innovation and the four barriers to adopting them in the association world that were identified as part of WSAE's White Paper on Innovation. If you haven't yet read that paper, I would encourage you to do so, but for today's post, I want to focus on just one principle and it's corresponding barrier that continue to resonate with me.

The principle is the "freedom to experiment and fail"--having a culture where new ideas are given the support they need to succeed or fail on their own merits, and where, when failure happens, the focus is on learning from the experience rather than assigning blame. And the corresponding barrier? Well, let me quote directly from the paper:

Low tolerance for risk
Innovative organizations are by nature risk‐taking organizations—places with the freedom to experiment and fail. But many associations approach risk from a decidedly conservative perspective. The need for change must be clearly documented and then trial‐ballooned and focus‐grouped with numerous stakeholders before it can get off the ground, and then it often has to navigate a minefield of existing programs and sacred cows in order to compete for funding. What many associations deem normal due diligence procedures—financial analyses and projections—can prematurely kill most innovative ideas, by creating the illusion of a known financial outcome where none, in fact, exists. Furthermore, the perceived “price of failure,” in terms of the potential loss of power and influence within an association hierarchy, is also often too high to attract the necessary champions for innovation.

There are a lot of ideas packed into that single paragraph, and I think the risk-avoidance behaviors and mechanisms that it describes still surround most of us who work in associations on a daily basis. I also recently re-discovered this HBR blog post from May 2011, where a young social sector professional diagnoses the risk-avoidance behaviors that plague her vocation. The parallels between that world and ours make it valuable reading, too.

But there's one area that's not yet been mentioned. Your boss can provide you with support and cover you need for risk-taking. There can be money in the budget for the implementation of your new ideas. There can even be projects taken off your plate to allow you more time and flexibility to stretch into new areas. But if you're not willing to step outside your comfort zone and actually do something different, something unpredictable, something whose value has not yet been determined, then innovation is not going to happen and you will remain part of the problem, not the solution.

Why aren't we taking the risks we need to break the old habits, to create new value, to advance our profession? It's because of you, isn't it? You and your fear that you won't measure up to the new standard, and that the future won't be as secure as the past. In avoiding risk-taking, you will rush us head-long into the failure we're trying to avoid.

Please stop. What exactly do you think you're protecting anyway?

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