How to (Safely!) Take Risks at Work

We know that taking risks is the key to innovation. But playing is safe is just so... safe! If fear is holding you back from taking risks at work, Modern Mentor has some tips to share to help you contain and take risks without fear.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #688
The Quick And Dirty

Making risk-taking feel less scary comes down to four strategies:

  1. Begin with context
  2. Think big and shrink in
  3. Have a learning plan
  4. Spread the word
There’s a trail of companies behind us—from Polaroid to Blockbuster to Blackberry (and countless others my kids have never heard of)—that ultimately failed because they didn't innovate.
Once they found their formula for success, they took their eyes off the ball. And when they weren’t looking, crafty new business models emerged, taking risks that paid off.
Companies need to be innovating today more than ever—in ways big and small. And innovation requires risk-taking, which means that individual people need to be taking the risks. But taking risks is scary. What if you get it wrong?
We all know of someone who took a big chance and had a big fall. So how do you develop the comfort and confidence to take risks without worrying you’re putting your job on the line?
The good news is there are ways you can manage and mitigate risk, giving your great ideas their moment in the sun without leaving you feeling that unemployment is imminent. 

1. Begin with context 

All risks are not created equal. While there are many variations out there, one of the most critical is the informed versus the uninformed risk. As you’ve likely guessed, it’s the informed variety you should strive to take.
What makes a risk informed is effectively doing a bit of discovery. When you take the time to really understand the context—to define an opportunity at hand—then your risk suddenly becomes a solution to a problem rather than a shiny object.
Years ago, my brother had aspirations of starting his own business. But talk about a risky move!
So, he took a job with a recruiting firm that placed technical talent within organizations. It turns out technical talent and jobs come in many shapes and sizes. And my brother quickly realized there was an opportunity to specialize in a very specific brand of technical. He pitched his boss, his boss wasn’t interested, so my brother went out on his own.
Ten years later, my brother is the go-to guy when it comes to the particular niche he chose.
By the time he started his business, it no longer felt like a risk—a thing he wanted to do. It became a solution to a problem—a thing he felt compelled to do. And the thing that moved him into the zone of confidence was context. 
Maybe you lead a marketing team and there’s a new campaign you’ve been wanting to launch. Or you run a retail store and you have an inventive merchandising vision. Or you manage the front desk at a medical practice, and you’d like to reinvent the way you connect with new patients.
Before you fall in love with your idea, start with context. What’s happening around you? What’s working well, what’s feeling clunky or missing? What do your customers or patients need that they aren’t presently getting?
Answer those questions before you begin envisioning the risk you’d like to take. This will force you to keep things practical and purposeful—risk-mitigating factors. 

2. Think big and shrink it

“Go big or go home” is one of those ideas that sounds great at the gym or on a bumper sticker. But personally, I’m not a fan.
Sometimes "think big but start small" is the way to go. 
I was still working for a big company back when the open-concept workspace became a trend. Suddenly all the big research firms were pitching the open office as a means of driving collaboration, creativity, and productivity.
Big companies ate the idea up, and suddenly cubicles and offices were tumbling down, and you couldn’t take two steps without banging a knee on a space-age sofa or a foosball table.
It felt like it happened overnight. The change was significant, the financial investments unthinkable. 
Turns out, it totally backfired. Suddenly people had nowhere to go and think or have a private conversation or get their heads-down work done. Everything became noise—a distraction. Productivity and collaboration were ultimately reduced and people started working from home more often.
These complete workspace overhauls were gargantuan efforts. But by the time their impact became clear, it was too late to turn back. 
Hindsight is 20/20, but if those companies had started by transforming just a single floor and had people work in it for a few months, they’d have learned early about the negative impacts, and could have reworked their plans.
They went too big too fast. And this is a lesson in thinking big but starting small.
So, what’s your big idea, and how can you shrink it down to a tiny test?
Can you mock up that marketing campaign and test it with just a handful of loyal customers to get their feedback? 
Shrinking your idea down to a test minimizes the risk. You haven’t climbed too high, so the fall—if you have one—is unlikely to hurt. You just get up and try again. And if your idea is a win, then you build it out from there.
Suddenly risk doesn’t seem so terrifying, right?

3. Have a learning plan

The real problem with the open-office debacle is that a decision got made, and success was the only option. There was no backup plan, no strategy to address the question of “what if this new design doesn’t deliver the results we need?”
The real issue wasn’t the idea, it was the lack of a plan that would unlock learning, pivoting, and reimagining along the way.
If you’re envisioning that new marketing campaign, you could develop the campaign, send it to your entire database, and cross your fingers.
Or you can determine which variables you’re going to test (email subject lines? Discounts and offers?), which customer segments you’re going to engage, and what metrics you’ll look at to provide insight.
In combination with your think-big-start-small strategy, your tiny test gives you feedback you can leverage as you go. Which subject line performed best with your test audience? That’s the one you send to the masses. And what is it about the subject lines that didn’t perform well that might inform your future campaigns?
When you take this approach you’re never failing. You’re either winning or you’re learning. And both of these outcomes are of service to you and your company.

4. Spread the word 

Taking that first risk—even small and planned—may still feel scary. But if you’re intentional, you’ll learn something essential that will move you forward.
Then you just need to do it again. And you need those around you doing the same until risk-taking becomes a habit ingrained in how you do business.
Telling stories is one of the greatest ways to begin to build a habit. Instead of preaching about the value of risk-taking, share your own story of what you did, what you learned, and what impact it delivered to the team or organization.
Stories make things real and memorable. They also set you up as the hero of your story. Position yourself as the ambassador of risk-taking and watch your star soar.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.