When you’re in charge of running a company or a team, it’s easy to convince yourself that playing it safe is the responsible choice. Going out on a limb may be the last thing you want to do. But you need to take risks if you want to do more than just scrape by—especially in today’s economy.
The truth is, risk avoiders are also opportunity missers. Hoping that sales will get better or conditions will improve is the wimp’s approach. You can’t wait for everything to be perfect, because it never will be. You have to take action—accept risk and make things happen.
Following are 10 common risk avoidance excuses that may be holding you back: Excuse # 1: “The timing isn’t right.”
Business plans sit in boxes or on hard drives as their creators wait for the right conditions: more funding, free time, better economic conditions. And plenty of existing businesses remain less successful than their leaders would like because they are hoping that tomorrow conditions will be just a little bit better for advancing their goals. In addition, many leaders fail to solve problems or correct mistakes because, in their minds, the timing isn’t right. But when you’re bootstrapping a business, a mistake can be even more costly than not leveraging a chance for advancement. Excuse # 2: “I tried that once, and it didn’t work.”
Those words are most often uttered in reference to marketing. Perhaps you’ve been there: You allocated a large part of your marketing budget to producing a television commercial, for instance, but barely noticed any increase in your business. Or, maybe you offered an online deal to new customers only to realize that the discount you advertised was a little too generous and wouldn’t allow you to make any profit. Your one-time marketing failure has convinced you not to try again. Yes, marketing can be expensive, and it’s hard to accurately predict how customers will respond. But without proactive long-term and consistent marketing, businesses die. Avoiding investing in marketing—or even cutting back on it—because one campaign didn’t produce the desired results is a risk you can’t afford to take. Excuse # 3: “If I just had XYZ gadget.…”
If I just had faster computers, my team could respond to customer emails on a more timely basis.” “If I just had the latest supply chain management software, my company could fulfill orders more quickly.” Many “If I just had…”s involve technology. Remember, though, you can spend forever waiting on the next best thing—and often, that thing isn’t as necessary as you thought. On the infrequent occasions when the Internet in my office goes down, everyone has one concern: “What should we do now?” My answer is always this: “If you were on a deserted island with no supermarket, would you just let yourself starve or would you figure out a way to survive? You may not be online, but your phone still works. Pretend the Internet hasn’t been invented yet, and call a few customers. Survive.”
Remember, the road to success is through action, not accessories. Countless success stories have been written with nothing more than ink and paper, a rotary phone and plain determination. While tools, technology and accessories are helpful, they do not guarantee success. Effort guarantees success—you have to keep your foot on the accelerator longer and more often than your competitor. Excuse # 4: “I’m still working on the plan.”
Let’s say that you want to move to the next level, whatever that happens to be for your business. You begin planning and preparing for every possible scenario. You define contingencies with backup plans full of redundancies. You sometimes wonder how anyone could fail with a plan that covers all possibilities and that offers each a solution. But here’s what you’re not taking into account: While your perfect plan might prevent you from failing, it will also hold you back from succeeding
if it’s never executed. Planning is a good thing, but for many leaders, the solution to avoiding risk is to keep planning. Many risk-averse executives miss opportunities in this way. Excuse # 5: “It’s a good idea, but circumstances have changed.”
This is a case of moving the target. Moving the target changes the objective, goal or focus of your business and thus delays plan execution, innovation or change. It means changing your plans every time you lack certainty or don’t have enough motivation to move forward. The problem is, each time you move the target you have to stop and prepare to fire again. It’s possible to spend an indefinite amount of time making excuses in this way without ever accomplishing anything. Excuse # 6: “I’ll get to it eventually.”
In my book, I tell the story of a salesperson who did extensive research on each sales lead she got. Some of her research files contained more than a hundred printed pages of material. Her reasoning? She wanted to know as much as possible about a potential client before she called them. On the surface, this level of dedication sounds admirable. But, in reality, the salesperson was procrastinating to put off the moment of truth. She was afraid of being rejected after making her pitch, and her research was a form of risk avoidance. You have to stop telling yourself the lie that you’ll “get to it eventually.” If you immerse yourself in busywork in order to avoid the true priorities, your business won’t last long enough for you to tackle them at some undefined point down the road. Excuse # 7: “I’m playing a defensive game.”
The hardest risks to take are often financial. Many leaders choose to cut costs and (at least attempt) to do more with less when what they really need to do is hire new talent, invest more heavily in marketing, upgrade their machinery or something else. No business achieves greatness solely by pinching pennies—although financial responsibility is certainly a big part of sustainability and growth. The truth is that you can save your way to mediocrity, but not success. So don’t tell yourself that you’re playing the game if you never come off defense. Nobody ever wins without picking up the ball and running, despite obstacles. Excuse # 8: “Nothing’s broken; why fix it?”
When you’re facing a crisis that could damage or even sink your business, it’s (fairly) easy to take risks. After all, if you don’t act, you’re doomed—and in that situation, there’s probably not much to gain by holding back. But what about the times when things are going smoothly, when you may have more to lose by going out on a limb? That’s when it’s much easier to convince yourself there’s no need to tamper with the status quo. However, that kind of thinking could lead to your business being left behind or becoming irrelevant. Customers don’t always leave because they had a bad experience with your company. The reason is often that they simply had a better one with someone else. Remember, risks need to be taken when business is good and
bad if you want to stay cutting edge and competitive. Excuse # 9: “…crickets chirping, dust falling, grass growing.…”
That’s the sound of silence. It's what you hear when you decide to let a project or initiative die over time instead of doing what’s necessary to bring it to fruition. Whether you simply lack motivation or your surrender is fear driven, your risk-avoidance behavior may take the form of lack of follow-through. Maybe you’re afraid of being held accountable if you don’t meet expectations, or you simply find that you don’t want to put in the extra effort. So, you sit back and let projects peter out instead of either driving them forward or definitively putting them out of their misery. (You may even fool yourself into thinking that others don’t notice that you talk a big game, but don’t deliver.) Don’t allow your mind to sabotage your desire to meet your objectives. Excuse # 10: “But I don’t avoid risk!”
Even if you have conquered your fear of risk and can move into uncharted territory without hesitation, progress paralysis might still affect your company through the action (or inaction) of your employees. If you as the leader don’t take ownership of your team’s counterproductive behaviors, you could miss out on a lot of opportunities. Your salespeople might be stuck in the comfort zone of creating safe, but boring, pitches, or your ad designer might be creating a backlog because she’s a prisoner of perfectionism. If that’s the case, maybe you’re simply so focused on leading
your business that you haven’t kept a close eye on its inner workings, trusting your team to be as bold and efficient as you are. Or, more likely, you have
noticed risk avoidance behaviors that are slowing your organization down and are simply reluctant to confront your employees—a form of risk avoidance in and of itself.
Risk avoiders live in a false reality. The temporary comfort they gain from rationalizing their inaction just postpones the inevitable. Hoping that something will change will result in defeat. Success comes only via constant forward progress, which requires making something happen. As a leader, your example of enthusiastically seeking opportunity to execute, improve and deliver results will be the beacon that guides all who follow you. So stop avoiding—and start acting.
You can acquired additional skills for dealing with risk at these AMA seminars: Demystifying Decision Making: Getting It Right Strategic Thinking