Friday, September 2, 2011

Risk versus perfection

I was recently asked how I can encourage my team to take risks, while simultaneously driving them to perfection. “After all”, the questioner posed, “doesn’t the drive for perfection inhibit risk taking?”

It was a terrific question. I was not able to answer immediately. With the benefit of a few weeks of thought, here goes.

First, I don’t ask for perfection. I ask for excellence. This is an important, subtle difference. Excellence is the attitude for approaching a task. Excellence is:

  • Driven by personal investment to deliver a quality outcome
  • Attention to details without losing sight of key principles
  • A commitment to deliver what one agrees to deliver, when promised
  • A passion for delighting the recipient of the deliverable
  • An understanding that every part matters, from the highest detail (functionality, visual design) to the lowest detail (alignment, colors).

Taking risks, on the other hand, is trying something with an uncertain outcome. Risk taking is:

  • A willingness to explore options, even if the result is failure (it never is, by the way)
  • An ability to judge potential gain versus potential loss
  • Trusting one’s intuition

Taking risks and excellence are not mutually exclusive. Taking risks is about choices we make. Excellence is the attitude we have when executing those choices. That is, once I choose to take a risk (change partners or technology, for example), the decision must be executed with excellence.

Sending a human to the moon was a risk; it was performed with excellence.

Encourage your teams to take risks. And expect excellence in all they do.