Risk Adverse or Risk Smart?

I am an excessively optimistic person born to look on the bright side of life. As a result, I am struggling to understand the deep funk where I now find myself to be.

While my family life is as good as it gets, it’s my career that has me perplexed. Maybe I’m just delusional, but from my perspective, my experience, education, passion for making a difference, and hard work recently seems to have been culminating and melding in a synergetic way. I really think I’m doing the best work I’ve ever done in my life. 

Working with a brilliant and entrepreneurial team, I learn and produce every day. Our work has resulted in a change framework that has led to comprehensive community transformation and truly meaningful accomplishments in communities across the province.

We have many fans within the communities we’ve supported. After all, they’ve seen the results that strong local leaders, engaged citizens, and community-driven initiatives can make. And yet, it seems there aren’t a lot of others, especially funders, who seem to appreciate just how innovative and important this work is to our social, environmental, and economic well-being.

Our supporters suggest it’s a matter of us simply being ahead of the curve. And, we’ve been told more than once that we will have to wait for others to catch up before the need for funding the change process, tools, training, and resources we’ve been providing is acknowledged.

Regardless, being admonished to be patient and let others catch up is not all that consoling. It seems to defeat the purpose of being innovative. After all, doesn’t being innovative mean being and staying on the leading edge rather than just staying in place until others are ready? 

Perhaps instead it speaks more to the risk-averse culture that too often prevails among non-profit and government organizations. This is largely due to the fact that there are few incentives for taking risk. Too often management tends to associate risk taking with the possibility of something going wrong – project failure or financial loss – even though we all know the greatest lessons and learning most typically comes from the failures.

I’m left feeling sad because none of us should be choosing certainty over uncertainty which is, after all, what being risk averse really means. We shouldn’t be shunning risk, we should be embracing and managing it.

Today, being risk adverse – even when funding comes from public tax dollars or donations - might just be the greatest risk of all.

Changes in technology, in the complexity of our community challenges, and citizens’ expectations for better services means we all need to be making risk and innovation a priority in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of operations.  And yet, public sector and non-profit innovation is difficult to promote and fund within environments where there is resistance to taking risks or even total avoidance.

Instead, we all need to be persistent in encouraging, resourcing, and supporting the risk that comes with innovation.  We can do that by creating environments where employees and volunteers are encouraged to take initiative. Too often, the opposite occurs.  For instance, just the other day, I was party to seeing a senior manager chastise one of his keenest staffers for being “premature” in sourcing out a resource. 

We also need to do more to become “risk-smart” in order to better assess and act on risks and opportunities.  This includes providing employees and volunteers with access to information, training, resources, encouragement, and guidelines that support innovative practice. Our environments also need to support and learn from (but not sanction) legitimate mistakes.

A public entity that fears risk is prone to creating systems and rules that value safety instead of focusing on the prevention, detection, and correction of the underlying causes. Somewhere along the line, compliance and adherence to the rules becomes more important and common sense, sensible discretion, and innovation becomes less important.

Perhaps though, the greatest challenge is accepting that risk is about growing and therefore requires each of us to be receptive to doing things differently. Ultimately that means we need to get better about accepting and responding to the changing world around us. That doesn’t mean by accepting the new, we are saying we’ve been wrong up until now, it just means we’ve accepted the fact that we can, and ought to, do better.

Posted on 01-08-12


This does make me wonder how the cutting edge survive the sharpness of that edge.  Loved this blog, Brenda… its true, nothing is learned from always repeating the same actions.

•Posted by Janet Naclia  on  01/09/12  at  02:05 PM


Keep surrounding yourself with possibility thinkers Brenda - it’s key for “energy” survival.  I find when I get really weary I feel a heck of a lot better when I move to strategizing how to change the conversations rather than having the same ones over and over again. It’s amazing how looking at something or presenting something through a different lens helps.  You may not get to a new place any quicker but at least you won’t get bored with the same old conversations.

•Posted by MarthaParker  on  01/16/12  at  07:33 PM

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