How to Push Your Team to Take Risks and Experiment
Most managers, entrepreneurs and business leaders know the importance of having curious and experimental employees who have no problem with taking risks and taking initiative to come up with innovative solutions to problems.
This is particularly evident when you look at the hiring process.
Having such employees can be the difference between success and failure in the world of business.
Ironically, after going to such great lengths to hire employees who have a knack for experimentation and risk taking, many managers then go ahead and stifle these employees’ ability to experiment and take risks.
They do this by micromanaging the employees, asking them to follow safe, predictable processes, not giving them responsibility, and blowing off their top when these employees fail at something.
If you want to get the most out of your employees and have a constant supply of new, fresh ideas and opportunities, you need to create a company culture that encourages employees to be innovative and to take risks.
Below are some reasons why this is good for your company.
Improved Ability to Solve Problems
Many companies often encourage their employees to follow tried and tested processes that are sure to work every time.
While this works, it is inevitable that at some point, your business will come across new problems and challenges that your employees have never seen before.
Your tried and tested processes will not work in such a situation.
In such situations, solutions can only be found through trial and error.
If your employees are used to playing it safe, you can bet that they will be stuck when this happens.
Employees who are used to experimentation, on the other hand, will find it easier solving such problems because they are used to trying out new, unconventional things and processes.
Improved Employee Engagement and Satisfaction
According to a recent survey by The Conference Board, only 51% of employees are satisfied with their job. This means that almost half of employees feel somewhat unfulfilled in their jobs.
When you consider how expensive it is to replace employees, it is clear that managers and business leaders should be doing more to help their employees become more engaged at work.
Fortunately, you can improve employee engagement and job satisfaction and decrease employee churn by encouraging experimentation amongst your employees.
By encouraging employees to take risks, try new ideas and work their own ways, you make them feel like they are people who actually matter rather than non-autonomous subjects who only follow orders.
Think about most of the biggest companies in the world.
I’m talking about companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and so on. How many of these companies got where they are by following a well beaten path? None of them.
These companies became the biggest in the world because they are staffed by employees who are free and willing to try new, untested things.
More importantly, the leaders of these companies actively encouraged their employees to take risks and experiment.
Each of the above companies has programs that encourage employees to come up with new ideas.
For instance, Google has a division known as Google X, which encourages employees to come up with their craziest ideas for products (known as moonshots) and try to build them.
Amazon, on the other hand, has a virtual idea box where employees can submit their ideas.
Amazon’s highly successful Prime program is a direct result of the idea box.
These two are great examples of how these companies encourage a culture of experimentation and risk taking and turn it into profits.
These are just some of the reasons why you should push your team to take risks and experiment.
The question is, how exactly do you do that? Below are some tips on how to achieve that.
ENCOURAGE EMPLOYEES TO THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
This may sound cliché, but the first step to having a team that experiments and takes risks is to encourage them to think outside of the box and challenge the status quo.
When faced with a problem, the typical thing to do is to pick the first answer that pops up. In many cases, the first answer is not always the best.
To encouraging your team to think outside the box, you need to make them understand that there are always multiple answers to any problem and train them how to find these multiple answers.
If there is a problem, ask you team to come up with 10 different ways of looking at or defining the problem.
Ask them to then come up with ten different solutions based on the ten different approaches.
If you have a project, ask them to think of different ways of doing the project. If they come to you with a suggestion, ask them for several more suggestions.
Doing this trains your team to constantly explore many different options and ideas before settling on the best one.
MODEL RISK-TAKING BEHAVIOR
One of greatest mistake I have seen managers and other business leaders make is to try to encourage risk taking behavior when they are not risk takers themselves.
It does not matter how much you encourage risk taking and how supportive of failure you are; if you are not a risk taker yourself, your staff are unlikely to take any risks.
People learn best by example, so you need to start exhibiting the same behavior you are promoting. Take a lot of risks and be transparent about them to your team.
Tell them when you take risks and explain why you are taking the risk and the steps you are taking to minimize the possibility of failure.
If you fail, instead of keeping it to yourself, share what you have learnt from the failure.
By showing them your approach to risk taking, you are offering them a great opportunity to develop their ability to take risks.
A good example of a company that does this is NBC Universal. Senior leaders at the company are taken through a six-month DRIVE program at the company’s Talent Lab, where they are challenged to rethink the company’s business model.
They are also taken to an incubation hub in Silicon Valley and further trained on how to come up with new, unconventional strategies and mindsets.
The reason behind all this is that NBC Universal understands that when senior leaders embrace experimentation and lead by example, the behavior will trickle down to lower levels of the company.
The biggest challenge when it comes to taking risks is the fear of failure.
When you are trying something new and untested, there is always the possibility of failure.
That is what makes it a risk. If you were sure you are going to succeed, it would not really be a risk.
The problem is that people who are afraid of failing will avoid experimentation and risk taking as much as they can and instead opt for tried and tested methods that are sure to work every single time.
If you want your team to embrace experimentation and risk taking, you need to show them that failing is normal when attempting something new.
Think about the most successful companies and individuals in the world. All of them experienced failure at some point before finding success.
The launch of Google Glass was a huge failure for Google. In 1980, Apple’s launch of the Apple III resulted in 100% failure and almost destroyed the company. Every unit that was sold had to be recalled.
Steve Jobs himself, one of the biggest innovators to date, experienced great failure when he was expelled from Apple, the company he started in his parents’ garage.
Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball of all time, said that in the course of his career, he missed over 9000 shots and missed the game winning shot 26 times.
All these examples show that failing is part of the journey to success. Regardless of how much you plan, things seldom go according as expected once the plan is in action.
So, how do you normalize failure within your organization or team? One way of doing this is to promote a concept known as failing forward fast.
If your team members find themselves in a position where they need to take a risk, they should not let their fear of failure stop them from pressing forward.
Instead, after taking all the necessary factors into consideration, they should pick the best possible option and take the plunge. If things work out as expected, well and good.
If they don’t go as expected, don’t go hard on the team. Instead, encourage them to pick themselves up and forge ahead.
This shows your team that what matters is moving ahead rather than avoiding failure.
Another way of normalizing failure is to flip your company’s language from ‘avoiding failure’ to ‘celebrating success.’
When your team members fail, instead of focusing on the failure and what it has cost you, focus instead on what the team can learn from the failure.
Instead of punishing your staff for failing, ask them to explain what went right and wrong, what they would do better if they had to do it again, and what they have learnt from the entire experience.
Doing this not only shows that failure is normal, is also helps your entire team to learn and become better at taking risks.
Proctor & Gamble and Tata are great examples of companies that do this well. Proctor & Gamble has an annual Heroic Failure award where the team or individuals whose failure led to the greatest learning for the company are awarded.
Tata, on the other hand, has an annual Dare To Try award which honors managers who took the most novel and daring risk.
American conglomerate 3M also provides another example of how to normalize failure.
The company has a tradition where stories of the company’s famous failures that were later turned into successes are passed on to new employees. A good example is the infamous story behind the post-it note.
Spencer Silver, an engineer at the company, was trying to come up with an adhesive for use in plane manufacturing. Unfortunately, the glue he came up with was too weak, and it was classified as a failure.
However, a colleague who was constantly losing bookmarks for his hymn book thought Spencer’s glue was a great solution for him, and that is how the post-it note came to be.
The simple product that started as a failure would go on to become one of the company’s bestselling products.
RESIST THE URGE TO SAY NO
Very often, employees come up with new, innovative ideas that could potentially change their organizations, but they opt to keep the ideas to themselves because they feel the ideas will be rejected by the management.
According to a survey by Leadership IQ, only 24% of employees feel that their leaders encourage suggestions and ideas for improvement from employees.
This means there is a large portion of the workforce that opts to keep their ideas to themselves because they feel they will be ignored.
Of course, this stifles the spirit of risk taking and experimentation.
To avoid this, business leaders should encourage their teams to share their ideas and try as much as they can to resist the urge to reject employees’ ideas.
If possible, come up with policies or initiatives that discourage managers from rejecting employee ideas. Amazon offers a great example of how to do this.
If an employee at Amazon presents a great idea to his or her manager, the manager is expected to accept the idea by default.
In case the manager decides to reject the idea, he or she has to write a two page thesis to explain why they rejected the idea.
With this policy, Amazon makes it hard for managers to reject employees’ ideas, which results in more ideas being tested and implemented.
HIGHLIGHT AND CELEBRATE SUCCESSES
Another great way of encouraging employees to take risks and experiment is to recognize and highlight any team members who achieve success after taking huge risks.
Doing this provides employees with an incentive for taking risks and also makes them feel fulfilled when they see the company recognizing their efforts.
Of course, for this to work, you should simultaneously avoid coming down hard on employees who fail. In the course of taking risks, it is inevitable that some will experience failure, and reprimanding them will only prevent them from trying.
One of the most common ways of celebrating such successes is to give bonuses and other forms of financial reward.
If you don’t have the budget for that, you can still celebrate your successful risk takers through other pocket friendly forms of validation, such as giving awards the Tata way or simply commending the employee’s efforts in the presence of the entire company.
Westin hotels and Haier are perfect examples of companies that have mastered the art of celebrating employee successes.
Every quarter, Westin hotels identify the top five innovators and send them on exotic holidays with all expenses paid.
By doing this every quarter, they encourage employees to come up with great ideas all year round.
Chinese consumer electronics and home appliances company Haier, on the other hand, gives innovative employees the ultimate recognition by naming products after the employee that came up with the idea for the product.
Who wouldn’t want a product that’s going to sell worldwide named after them?
GIVE EMPLOYEES CREATIVE TIME
The most successful companies know that for employees to experiment and come up with new ideas, they need the time to actually do that.
If an employee is constantly engaged in their day to day work every single minute, they have no time for experimenting with new ideas.
To avoid this, some of the top companies create time for employees to work on something that is not related to what they do on a daily basis.
For instance, Facebook holds regular hackathons where engineers get to work on new projects that are not part of their day jobs. Many of Facebook’s features were birthed in these hackathons.
Google also has an initiative where employees are allowed to spend 20% of their time working on side projects that are not related to what they are employed to do.
This is how products like Gmail and Google Glass were born.
3M also has a similar policy where employees are given 15% of their time at work experimenting with projects unrelated to their day work.
I know your company is not Google, and allowing employees to spend 20% of their paid time (one full work day per week) experimenting and working on side products might be too much of a stretch.
However, you can still give employees some little time (such as Friday afternoons) to doodle, experiment and come up with ideas that might help the company.
Of course, any ideas they come up with should be given a chance if they have some potential.
While cultivating a culture of risk taking and experimentation within your team has several benefits for your organization, risks and experiments can sometimes lead to disastrous results that might even threaten the wellbeing of the entire company.
To avoid this, you should encourage your employees to start taking risks and experimenting with small projects and processes that do not have a very huge impact on the entire organization.
As they experience successes with these smaller projects, you can then allow them to experiment with even larger projects and processes.
This not only prevents any disastrous results, it also makes employees comfortable with taking risks. Taking small risks and succeeding gives them the confidence to take even bigger, well calculated risks.
A good example of a company that does this is Japanese automaker Toyota, which introduces employees to risk taking and experimentation by asking them to make small changes and tweaks to make processes a little bit more efficient.
In order for this to work well, you need to publicly define areas where risks are encouraged and where they are not.
Define a ‘safe zone’ of projects and processes where employees can take risks, and make it clear where they should not attempt taking a risk or experimenting without first consulting a superior.
DON’T USE EXPERIMENTS TO CREATE BEST PRACTICES
When most organizations run experiments, the results and insights from the experiment are usually used to come up with best practices.
Initially, this might seem like a great idea. It’s not! Best practices are essentially tried and tested methods that have been proven to work.
By creating best practices, you are encouraging your team members to follow the safe and predictable route instead of taking risks and experimenting.
In addition, best practices are static. They are optimized for what worked yesterday, last month or last year, even when it might not be the best suited for achieving success today.
To avoid remaining static and discouraging your team members from taking risks, you should avoid using the results of experiments to come up with best practices.
Instead, you should encourage your team members to use insights from past experiments to come up with more exciting experiments.
This keeps the spirit of experimentation and risk taking alive and often results in new ideas and innovative solutions that you would not have stumbled upon by following best practices.
MAKE EMPLOYEES RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR OWN EXPERIMENTS
Very often, when an employee comes up with an experiment that has some potential, they are commended for the idea, and then the idea is passed on to another team for testing and implementation.
This separation between the originator of the idea and the person who tests the idea has two problems.
First, since they do not get to see the results of their idea first hand, which limits their ability to fine tune their ideas.
Second, it can also discourage employees from sharing their ideas. Imagine coming up with an idea for a cool product, only for you to go back to your desk while another team builds and takes credit for your idea.
To avoid this, you should make everyone responsible for their experiments. If someone comes up with an idea, give them the resources and support they need to test and implement the idea. If the idea fails, they will have learnt important lessons that will help them come up with better ideas next time.
If it works, they will feel a sense of accomplishment and it will encourage them, as well as other employees, to take more risks next time.
A culture of experimentation and risk taking is great for any organization. It keeps fresh ideas and opportunities flowing through the organization, helping the organization to optimize operations and maintain their competitive edge.
With the tips shared above, you will be able to effectively push your team to take risks and create a culture where experimentation is the norm rather than the exception.