Two Steps to Fostering a Culture of Optimal Risk, Reflection and Development

Are you taking the right kinds of risks?
Two steps to fostering a culture of optimal risk, reflection and development

Making the right kinds of mistakes? Hopefully, you can answer with a firm, “yes.” Because, guess what? If you aren’t giving yourself and others the allowance to take risks that could result in failure, excelling in any endeavor is not possible. Risk is an act of stretching beyond your status quo, that immediate circle surrounding your comfort zone.

Speaking up in a meeting, starting your own business, public speaking, knocking on a prospect’s door or stepping in front of a team on your first day as a manager are all uncomfortable acts. They should be. All of those situations have the potential for failure. That is what makes them so great. If you never fail and, more importantly, reflect on what you could have done better, you will not improve. Challenging yourself, failing, reflecting and changing behavior is the ultimate process of learning, development, mastery and progress.  

The irony is that by avoiding failure, we increase the likelihood it will happen. An unwillingness to change and expose ourselves to potential failure assumes that an individual, team or company has nothing more to give or achieve. The status quo is the place to be. This is a huge mistake. By clinging desperately to how things are, change will still happen.

The status quo is never stable.

Your company, the economy, technology, the world, they all change. You change. More importantly, by avoiding the risk of failure and making mistakes, you increase the probability that you will lose control and be changed by your environment, blowing up your perceived sweet spot in the comfort zone. This is avoidable with a purposeful willingness to try new things and take risks – be the master of change, wielding it for your own benefit as opposed to hanging out in the comfort zone where change will happen to you, manifesting in the form of atrophy or chaos.  

The good news is that there is a simple process for creating a culture of smart risk and positive development. In his article, Permission to Fail, Matt Paese discusses how individuals and organizations should foster failure – not just any failure, but smart failure. There is a difference between fostering small failures (good) vs. big failures (not so good). For organizations to ensure its people are able to manage around and avoid large failures, they must create a developmental culture celebrating small failures. Unfortunately, Paese goes on to write that, “embracing failure has been more talk than action” in most organizations.

How does someone foster smart failure in themselves as well as in others? Paese suggests taking these two steps.

  1.  First, ask the question: “What will happen if failure occurs?” If the result is catastrophic – losing a huge client, your job, etc. – not taking a risk could be warranted. Not all risk is created equal. It may not make sense to assign the largest client to the greenest member of a team, for example. Even in this situation, however, breaking responsibilities into smaller components can be a solution and developmental opportunity. Can you start with apprenticeship as opposed to ownership by having the new team member assist with client tasks and projects, or be assigned smaller clients?
  2.  The second step is to learn from small failures by openly discussing the question, “Why did it happen?” without fear of punitive recourse or self-doubt. Getting to the root of why failure occurred and then looking at ways to improve creates forward momentum and reduces the tendency to fall back to the perceived safety of the dreaded comfort zone.

These two simple developmental actions will create a highly effective and adaptable culture that controls their direction.

Don’t let change be something that happens to you. Fail boldly.

What failures have you learned from?

Matt Nelson

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