A Four Letter Word

One late autumn evening a father came into his home with a small gift, which he partly concealed in his hands. Before his two sons could see what it was, he tossed it into the air. Instead of falling to the floor, as expected, it flew across the room till it struck the ceiling, where it fluttered awhile, and finally sank to the floor. It was a little toy, known to scientists of the time as a “helicopter.” It was so delicate that it lasted only a short time in the hands of the two small boys, but its memory was abiding.

Later in the late 1800s the boys faced difficult economic times, fierce competition in the bicycle business (they couldn’t give them away), not to mention being the laughing stock of all of Ohio. But in 1904 they revolutionized the world by creating the first flying machine. They were willing to risk ridicule. They were willing to risk the very high likelihood of failure. They were willing to risk profitable careers and pursue a hobby that started with a childhood toy! Yet if not for the risks they embraced, our world would be a very different place today. The boys were young Orville and Wilbur Wright.I will always remember visiting the Edison Tower in Menlo Park, New Jersey where I grew up as a child. At the top of the tower is a replica of Thomas Edison’s workroom. It is filled with all kinds of inventions, most of which are, to this day, useless artifacts. While in Menlo Park, Edison received over 400 patents on items, which were never put into production. In short they were failures. But Edison thought of these disasters as learning opportunities.One time his lab stove went out in the dead of winter. Many expensive chemicals froze. Another time unprotected chemicals were damaged by sunlight. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Edison stopped all other projects and thought of ways to solve the problem. He learned to change the makeup of some of the chemicals. He was not afraid to take risks and he never gave up when a project failed. Few people know that Edison started hundreds of companies between 1868 and 1928. Most of them were failures. But he would brush himself off and start something new. Edison learned that risk-taking was a good thing. He learned that without taking risk he could not achieve success. He learned that it’s okay to fail. That failing is not the end. It is rather a new beginningWhen did RISK in our society become a four-letter word? Maybe it was after the dot-com implosion or the tragedy of 9 -11 or the Enron debacle. Whatever the reason, “risk” has become a dirty little four-letter word in our business culture today.A few weeks ago I talked about how we should go “one step beyond” with our business initiatives. It takes the commitment to exceed the performance of yesterday to succeed tomorrow. But it also requires that we be willing to take reasonable or even sometimes unreasonable risks. Was it reasonable that the Wright brothers would create a machine that could fly in 1904? Was it reasonable for Edison to say in 1876 that, “in the future electric light will be so cheap that only that wealthy will be able to afford candles?” Likely not. Both Edison and the Wright brothers knew that without risk, there is no reward. Are we any different today? Can we really afford to hunker down and take a “wait and see” attitude when technology, the marketplace and the world around us changing faster than ever before? I think not.As I have said in the past, playing it safe isn’t necessarily playing it smart – even in cautious times. Don’t be afraid of risk. To not take a risk is to risk being ignored. “Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice. It’s not a thing to be waited for, it’s a thing to be achieved.” Let’s go from a “risk aversion” business culture to a risk sharing and reward innovation culture.In short, risk-taking is as much a part of good management as smart product development, effective marketing and strong leadership.

Posted in Managing Change, Uncategorized.

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