How to take more risks – 9 practical tips

November 15, 2021   By James Arrowsmith

James Arrowsmith of Browne Jackson shares his insights on how to overcome the fear of risk in your organisation.

Asked about barriers to innovation in public services at a conference early this year, three speakers gave strikingly similar answers: “risk”, “fear”, “risk and fear”.

At a time when local government is being asked to change and innovate more than ever, how can we break down those barriers?

Ahead of an Innovation Exchange event on this topic on 8 December, here are some ways that I’ve found help people, teams, and organisations take more strategic risks.

Understand:

Do:

Things to Understand

1. Risk is everywhere

Every organisation and system carries risk, though some have a better awareness and healthier relationship with it than others. Local government is in a rare position of having a role in managing and mitigating risk in their place and communities too.

Risk takes a wide range of forms, from data to safeguarding, from physical to mental health and wellbeing, and from budget risk to investment for growth. All of these are interconnected when it comes to the prosperity of a place.

A common pitfall when pursuing change is a too-narrow focus on the risk of the strategy, process or product being proposed.

By zooming out it is possible to see a broader risk landscape, where most changes are about rebalancing risk across a system – for risk added in one area, it is reduced in another.

The good innovations take out more risk than they add.

2. The risk of ‘doing nothing’

Key to demonstrating the value of a good innovation is understanding the risk of a ‘do nothing’ scenario.

That may be flooding of communities, ongoing health inequality, criminal exploitation or a host of other outcomes.

We’re perhaps more used to talking about the benefits of innovation. It’s understandable – we all want to make things better.

But being able to translate this understanding into an appreciation of the risk of ‘doing nothing’ is necessary too if we want to demonstrate that a change will remove more risk than it adds. 

3. Different forms of risk

As mentioned above, local authorities and other public bodies are in an unusual position of having responsibilities for risks in their communities as well as in their own business.

But risk within an organisation (internal risk) is much easier to identify and track than risk in the wider community. This can mean that internal risk ends up trumping external risk in the balancing exercise.

Clarity of purpose comes into play here. Developing a deep understanding of the risk in your places that you’re looking to address, and a compelling narrative, helps give external risks the same weight as internal risks.

As well as internal and external, there are also short-term and long-term risks – with the latter often not given enough attention.

Climate change, mental health and long term health conditions associated with pollution offer current examples of genuine, serious risks which nonetheless often seem to lack the immediacy needed to inspire the case for change.

Things to do

4. Engage with the community

Community engagement can be a powerful tool in making change happen. Communities have a very real insight and stake in the wellbeing of their place, and the people in it.

Engagement is also key to avoiding the kind of backlash that can derail plans for innovation.

The GP Data for Planning and Research project was delayed following “GP data grab” headlines which prompted NHS digital to acknowledge more engagement was required. Such setbacks can delay and even derail projects.

In this way, community engagement can help reduce risk.

5. Believe in positive risk

There is no question that some risk is positive.

Children should be allowed to have adventures, vulnerable service users should be given the maximum possible latitude to chose how they wish to live, and communities should be given a stake in their place.

There are many reasons to endorse this positive risk – it respects peoples’ rights and autonomy, reflects values and policy, and in many cases is mandated.

It is also part of supporting healthy people and communities. Or, put another way, it reduces serious risks to community cohesion, people’s mental and physical health and potentially such things as crime and antisocial behaviour.

6. Share purpose, not process

A common pitfall is asking the wrong question. When asked ‘can I follow this process?’ an IT department, lawyer, or accountant might rightly say ‘no’ and appear to block change.

Good advisors will always ask what you’re trying to achieve – whether your process is possible or not, this may lead to better options.

Avoid this pitfall by sharing your purpose, and the reasons why what you’re trying to achieve is important. Share your ideas for process too, but be open to being presented with alternatives.

If your advisor wants you to narrowly define a question that they can answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ then consider finding another advisor!

7. Have healthy conversations about risk

Risk will always exist in organisations, systems and communities. Healthy conversations that acknowledge and engage with this reality are the answer to managing it well.

One question to be asked in these conversations is ‘how will we balance risks?’

Another is ‘who should hold the risk?’, which is often just as important.

If risk can’t be extinguished then it will remain somewhere.

Conventional wisdom too often suggests that having understood this, the next step is to make sure thatrisk does not rest with your organisation. I understand that organisations have to manage their risk, but I don’t agree with avoiding it. 

For example, we’ve seen in the pandemic that for some voluntary and independent providers Covid amounted to an existential threat. If some participants in a system cannot carry risk, we need to be prepared to consider whether other participants are able to shoulder it instead.

Where this leads to a more robust, sustainable system these kinds of decisions will lead to an overall reduction in risk.

Whatever decision is made, these conversations also lead each organisation participating in them to a much greater understanding of risk, allowing them to manage their own risks far better.

8. Back the change

Not all projects work, and those that do can still have challenges as they bed in. The need to back a change does not stop when it goes live.

For one thing, a change that moves risk may adversely affect some people in your organisation or community. The engagement discussed above may ameliorate this, but will not prevent challenges or complaints.

Be open to new information, but don’t start second guessing decisions unnecessarily. Remember the reasons for the change and share these when responding. This is a way of backing the change and all those involved in implementing it.

Failing to back the change can too easily lead to people feeling unsupported and demotivated and a ‘job half done’ which will not deliver the intended benefits.

And in the event the change fails (as some will) remember the decision to try it may still have been right! Those involved in making it will need reminding of that if they are to retain the confidence to make good decisions in the future.

9. Take the risk!

In Originals, Adam Grant comments:

“when we use the logic of consequences, we can always find reasons not to take risks. The logic of appropriateness frees us up. We think less about what will guarantee the outcome we want and act more of a visceral sense of what someone like us ought to do”

This challenges to take a new perspective on change: ‘Does this change support our mission or purpose, or the aspirations of our communities for their place?’

Change is ubiquitous and so is risk. If we’re to make positive change, we need to be prepared to engage constructively with risk and bring others on that journey with us.

Change does carry a risk of its own, but this is usually limited, short term and capable of mitigation.

The big impact of change – its purpose – is on the risks that already exist within organisations, systems and communities. This is where the great opportunities lie, and where conversations about risk should focus.

Find out more about the Innovation Exchange event on this topic on 8 December

Photo by Sammie Chaffin on Unsplash

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