Wanted: IT risk-takers

If you'd really like your employees to take some chances, starting by getting rid of everything in place that discourages such ventures

Dear Bob ...

My IT department has started to play things way too safe. Project managers pad estimates, business analysts discourage business managers from trying anything unconventional, and social media? Don't even think about it.

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I keep telling everyone we need to take more risks, but it seems like what I'm doing is closer to ineffective nagging than successful leadership.

Any thoughts?

- Stuck in the mud

Dear Stuck ...

Be careful what you ask for. You just might get it.

I'll ask you the question I once posed to an executive who said he wanted to lead a risk-taking organization: What rate of failures do you want?

His answer: "None, of course." In response, I explained, as diplomatically as I could, that an organization with a zero failure rate is an organization that takes sure things, not risks.

Assuming you want to take real risks and accept some failures as an inevitable by-product, your first step is to find all the structural factors that are in place to discourage risk-taking.

Start with information security. Is it operating according to the risk profile you want, or is it in full prevent mode, trying to maximize security rather than optimizing it?

Next: Do you work in a culture that "holds people accountable"? If so, I'd bet this means punishing them for every failure -- which, in turn, means your culture discourages risk-taking. Very likely, your compensation system does so as well.

Those are examples of how to avoid discouraging risk-taking. As to how to encourage it, start with your own behavior. Do you take visible risks? If so, how, how do you make them visible, and how do you distinguish between taking risks and being foolhardy?

Look at your management team. Are any of them natural risk-takers? If not, you might need to shake up your team, because risk-taking is as much a matter of character as it is a matter of anything else. You can encourage it, but it has to be wired into at least some of your organizations' managers.

One more thought: Don't expect too much. It's a rare organization in which more than maybe 10 percent of the employees actively think beyond the scope of their jobs to ask how things could be done differently and better, especially if managers haven't included this character trait in what they interview for.

So if you find that only one out of ten employees are taking risks, don't be too concerned about it.

It's pretty normal.

- Bob

This story, "Wanted: IT risk-takers," was originally published at InfoWorld.com.