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Death by risk-aversion


Memo to Microsoft: you've got people doing some amazing things over there. If you could just get the hell out of the way, the world might change for the better.

Risk-aversion is the single biggest innovation killer, and of course it's not just Microsoft that's been infected. Taking risks is... risky. But if not taking risks is even riskier, then WTF?

Sure the big companies have it bad and may fall the hardest if they don't get a clue and a cure, but none of us is immune. You see the safe path everywhere. Today at lunch I had one of those conversations with a co-author about the cover of the next Head First book, and there I was suggesting a "safer" cover model than the one he wanted (complete with all the logical reasons why people could complain about his choice). I still can't believe the words that were coming out of my mouth.

Blogging has not made this easier... if anything, the idea that a gazillion bloggers and commenters (or even ONE loud one) will seize any opportunity to find fault with your ideas and attempts can dampen one's willingness to be brave. So here's my quarterly reminder to all (me included) that if you're not doing something that someone hates, it's probably mediocre.


But back to Microsoft... as I said in my previous post, Robert Scoble kept using the phrase "risk-averse" when defining some of Microsoft's problems. And I heard the same thing from Liz Lawley, who has been fascinated by the disconnect between the wonderful ideas MS employees have for products and services, and the final products and services released to the public. Somehow, according to Liz, fear steps in between those two points.

But whose fear? The metaphor Liz used (she got from someone else) was that many of the "leaf nodes" (what Microsoft and Sun and others refer to as "individual contributors") tend to be innovative and brave, but many of the "branches" (i.e. layers of management) can't stomach the risks. In their (admirable) desire to be strong and stable, the "branches" put safety above all else.


What kind of safety? Sometimes managers are putting the best interests of the company first. That's great--they're often more experienced and have a better grasp of the bigger context. But (and it's a really big but) sometimes they're just worried about their own damn job. In other words, the leaf node/individual contributors often think about the effect of their work on users, while the mid-level managers often think about the effect of their work on their job. And whose fault is that? All those layers of bosses. Even one risk-averse boss in the chain-of-command can do major damage to innovation, spirt, motivation, etc.

So add one more skill to our career advice for young people: be willing to take risks! Perhaps more importantly, be willing to tolerate (and perhaps even encourage) risk-taking in those who are managed by you. Of course I realize that this is much easier said than done. I was a "leaf node" at Sun, and a zillion other places before that. I've even done a little time as a "branch" (and I sucked at it).

But can anything be done about all the spirit-squashing risk-aversion? Recognition is the first step. Unfortunately, those who recognize it tend to be the leaf nodes--the ones with the power to create and implement the ideas, but very little power to authorize them. Those with the most potential to create change are the branches. The Managers With a Clue.

I had one of those at Sun--Jari Paukku, now a "Senior Change Management Specialist" for Nokia in Finland. He knew how to walk that fiber-thin line between keeping those above him happy while keeping those below him from losing passion. He knew how to pick his battles, and believed in doing the right thing for both customers and his team. But he also knew that getting himself fired wouldn't do his "leaf nodes" (like me) any good, so he didn't let us run wild with every cool idea that popped into our heads. If the idea had value, though, and was the right thing for customers, he would help us figure out a way (even if it was through a sneaky back door) to make it happen, or at least plant the seeds of possibility.


I do have a few general tips for dealing with risk-aversion:

Regularly review your sacred cows

Regularly review the assumptions behind all your decisions
Are those assumptions still valid?

Here's where the Buddhists have an edge. Too many of us hold on to practices or ideas (including sacred cows) long past their sell-by date. If it doesn't serve us any longer, it's time to give it up no matter how well it served us in the past.

Of course, "letting go" means temporarily experiencing that painful, awkward, "I suck" stage again. But pro athletes do it if they want to break through plateus. Go players do it to move up in ranks. Musicians let go of habits and styles. Programmers do it (waterfall anyone?). Writers do it. Anyone who has switched from skiing to snowboarding (or switched from regular to "goofy foot") has learned to let go.

Stewart and Caterina did it when they let go of their product being strictly a game, and allowed it become Flickr. O'Reilly did it when they let go of technical books being strictly about text (or for that matter, that books were strictly about print.)

Easy and familiar is safe, but often comes with built-in, unscalable walls. You can't get there from here.

Push the boundaries strategically, one-by-one
Whether you're a leaf or a branch, pick your battles carefully, one poke at a time. Better to live another day to keep fighting the good fight then, say, being fired for trying to do it all at once.

Use blogs to build support within the company
The collective power of all those Microsoft employee bloggers is helping (one small step at a time) build support for the leaf nodes, and the braver branches who manage them. (And yes, this particular tip was Robert Scoble's advice to other Microsofters fighting risk-aversion).

If all else fails and the culture of risk-aversion is stealing your soul, consider going into "short-timer" mode.
This was my path at Sun, and the one I recommend when you're dangerously close to losing heart. You'll probably be fired, but at least you can do some good on the way out by making a lot of noise. And you never know what will happen later... today, just a few years after my most ungraceful Sun exit, I not only contract with Sun in several key areas (including leading the development on most of their programmer/developer certification exams), but I'm also a founding member of Sun's Java Champions (I know, lame name, what's with the "champs/champions" thing and tech companies?) program. I find myself in conference calls with departments that still house a few folks who desperately wish I'd switched to .NET ; )

Keep reminding yourself that life is short!
One of the benefits of having a scary illness or major loss is that it reminds you of just how much time is ticking away, and that you always have options to make changes. If you have a great idea, what do you risk by not persuing it? Will you have more regrets if you try and fail than if you don't try at all? Some of the best and biggest ideas happen within the scope of large companies, but some of the most world-changing happen... elsewhere.

Posted by Kathy on January 30, 2006 | Permalink


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Kathy, this is an AWESOME article. You've done a great job here. I especially love the use of visual thinking via the graphics. It really tied the piece together expertly!

Posted by: Chris Brogan... | Jan 30, 2006 5:59:06 PM

Kathy, nice to see you back "on your horse". This is the why i'm subscribed to CPU. Awesome article.

I'm saving this one to del.icio.us for later reading, im done reading this post, but it's not done with me!

Posted by: Jared Teems | Jan 30, 2006 6:29:18 PM

Oh, this is awesome!

Posted by: Robert Scoble | Jan 30, 2006 7:52:44 PM

Hi Kathy - for some reason your last two entries haven't shown up in my rss reader. I even re-added the feed to see if that was the problem... nope.

Any ideas?

I thought you hadn't written anything for ages (lucky for you, well me actually, Scoble was on the case :) )

Posted by: RodeoClown | Jan 30, 2006 8:27:52 PM


Love the short-timer dig at the end. I've actually seen this happen a lot, to myself and coworkers. I have great ideas, the resulting product would kick butt. But rules, regulations, methodologies, standards, blah, blah, blah just reduce it to pile of smouldering mediocrity or worse. Sometimes just focusing on the end date and planning the escape route is about all you can do.

Posted by: Larry | Jan 30, 2006 8:55:56 PM

Not only do we need to take risks BUT we need to embrace failure! The more often we fail, the closer we are to success. Risks are minimised if you “resource and fund” them. Take lots of little risks and you increase your chances of success. It’s a lot like venture capital funding. They don’t bet the farm on one BIG idea but fund 100’s, knowing that you need that many bets to win with the next eBay or Google. I built a small software system that is free and you can follow my web site link to get it plus some audios and a transcript on this topic. No charge.

Posted by: Monte Huebsch | Jan 31, 2006 12:24:18 AM

WONDERFUL post. Loved the graphics too. Only feedback I'd add: Advising people to use wins (of whatever kind, but actual shipping profitable products are best) as collateral to borrow against future 'toe stepping' within that risk-averse management chain. People can argue against risk, but they have a harder time arguing with known rain-makers.

Posted by: Kim Pallister | Jan 31, 2006 1:16:29 AM

Great post, Kathy! It feels like you were speaking out of my mind. We have just re-launched out our new site Lovento.com and it was an awful lot of work to get where we are now, without getting a single dollar income for it so far. We have done all this in our free time and passionately believe that it will be useful for a lot of people. It takes a great amount of courage to sacrifice a large time of your life, if you don't know if it will be a great success or a great flop (not thinking about the zone of mediocrity here), but if you don't pursue it you will never find out..

Posted by: marco sanchez | Jan 31, 2006 1:39:24 AM

“If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play.”
- John Cleese

Great idea. I speak to groups about the TAO of Creativity. It is an acrostic for:

T-hinking thoughts – removing filters we impose ourselves. “I’m not an idea person.” “Someone else has already thought of it.” “They (whoever they are) won’t like it.”

A-dvancing thoughts – moving thoughts forward means experimentation, prototyping, etc. Fear of the retribution/fallout for failure kills this. This where management must have a “make mistakes and then fix them” perspective. Give people the ownership (cheesy word but accurate) of their project. Don’t jump in at every sign of a problem but be willing to be a resource for your employees.

O-rganizing thoughts – this comes down to some of the strategies and tools for sharing ideas, tracking methodologies. The myth of the creative genius living un-tethered, without any controls of life, art, or project is silly and dangerous. Tools to organize, share, and track development can help great ideas come to fruition more quickly.

Matthew Moran
The IT Career Builder's Toolkit

Posted by: Matthew Moran | Jan 31, 2006 5:14:40 AM

As an e-marketing rookie I find this article really awsome! Here in Poland where I work I think it's even harder to convince "branches" or Customers to take a risk and leave the competitors behind. Thans for many useful hints... Great job!

Posted by: Pawel Stempniak | Jan 31, 2006 7:51:53 AM

Great piece, it seems to me that when you have time you also need to focus a bit on how to incent people to take risks, and what the rewards are or should be. As you may recall, I urged the Search team to take some more risks too! One of my favorite quotes is, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way!" Thomas Paine

Posted by: Buzz Bruggeman | Jan 31, 2006 7:59:32 AM

This is funnier than hell.

See these free books and take the leap:


Be an Innovating Machine, scare your colleagues with your superhuman ability to define a problem, out of nowhere...


Posted by: R | Jan 31, 2006 8:04:26 AM

Fantastic article! I will recomend it to whole team.

Posted by: TechnoBalance | Jan 31, 2006 8:36:46 AM


Good to see you back at the reins of your blog !

I liked the "tree" analogy (or is it a metaphor, I always get those mixed up) and I would even take it a couple steps further.

I recently "read" (on audio CD) a book called "The Innovators Solution" by Clayton M. Christensen. In the book, he talks about Disruptive versus Sustaining Innovations and this can extend your tree idea.

Big companies (if they are any good) typically build their "tree" or systems around Sustaining innovations. These are Incremental improvements to existing products in existing markets. These are easy to see and, to use the analogy, are like the leaves collecting water and sunlight to feed the branches and trunk of the tree.

Disruptive innovations are usually for new markets (which "the branches" find hard to quantify or understand due to a lack of history in the markets) and often are for new (breakthrough?) products.

The "Solution" (as I interpret Clayton's book) is to plant the seeds separate from the main tree (spin them off?) and run them differently from the main business.

Clayton's overall suggestion is that to sustain overall growth you need to be planting seeds and protecting their growth because eventually the main tree is not going to be able to adapt and it will die!

Back to the tree analogy ... Leaves are workers supporting the operation of the tree. SEEDS are the innovations or ideas that can be grown into new trees (businesses). What do you think?

Good to have you back ! Keep up the good work !

Dave Wheeler

Posted by: Dave Wheeler | Jan 31, 2006 8:52:20 AM

My takeaway from this is "Take the risks that are less risky than the risk you would take by not taking them."

Three times fast! - http://www.basilwhite.com

Posted by: Basil White | Jan 31, 2006 11:11:53 AM

Great writing. I think a salient point that was made in your article, slightly, and expanded in the comments is to take calculated risks.

One other factor that I haven't seen mentioned though is the benefits of failure! In addition to "Is it riskier to do this or not do it?", ask yourself, "What might we learn by doing this and failing?" and "What advantages do we gain by doing this and failing?"

Failure is often better than success because it teaches you the things you won't learn once you've succeed.

Posted by: Bob B | Jan 31, 2006 11:40:35 AM

No-risk: Having regular good looking chick on the next head-first book.

Risk: Having a chinese or Indian guy on the cover of next head-first book(since they do represent reasonable number of techies)

Posted by: Kishore dandu | Jan 31, 2006 12:47:32 PM

Awesome, Kathy. FWIW, my local experience with being a key part of one sales channel for Microsoft (in 1997) was that the folks in the "branches" (and "trunk") appeared to have their brains wired to ask "if I do this, how would it look to all my peers and their management". Even before any other piece of a risk/reward maths.

A few of us from KO-era DEC still live "seek forgiveness, not permission" - and try to instill that in all employees :-)

Ian W.

Posted by: Ian Waring | Jan 31, 2006 12:52:23 PM


It's needless to say that this is a GREAT post - as good as they come - just an irritating little comment...look at it this way that I read your blog thoroughly - in the fourth line from the bottom, there is a typo the word "pursuing" has been spelled as "persuing". :-)

Don't kill me for nitpicking!

But if I had to give ratings...I give you 5 stars for this post as I'd give to a lot of your other posts.

Posted by: Harsh | Jan 31, 2006 1:11:56 PM

Put the top graphic of this article on a T-shirt and I'll buy 50 of them...maybe more. Great stuff!

Posted by: Mike Sansone | Jan 31, 2006 3:39:53 PM

Good post Kathy!
Liked it a lot.
Most of it resonates with what we do at vtiger for a living. No risk, no gain.
Recommended reading for all the young ones out there to make quick money!

I realise now that I am living life now by risking it.Earlier I was one of the survivors not the 'livers'.

Posted by: richie | Feb 1, 2006 1:20:09 AM

Scary thing is to see too much mediocrity and herd of (mediocre) sheeps huddled together not wanting to explore that huge green expanse.

Remember one thing: Those who aren't willing to budge, won't budge. Don't waste your time on them. But what's good news is that YOU CAN!

Posted by: Tarry | Feb 1, 2006 1:40:32 AM

the latest HBR is all about decision-making. worth a read.

Posted by: betho | Feb 1, 2006 12:48:42 PM

You state, "...And whose fault is that? All those layers of bosses. Even one risk-averse boss in the chain-of-command can do major damage to innovation, spirt, motivation, etc."

It's easy to blame bosses. Everyone blames them. But here's a refreshingly different look at bosses...from a systems viewpoint - 'why your boss is programmed to be a dictator' at www.changethis.com - read it, and you'll see what I mean! Until we change the system, nothing's going to change.

Posted by: Mike | Feb 2, 2006 3:21:46 AM

Great piece, this ties in nicely with what my entire company is trying to do. I actually have a boss who doesn't just give lip service to these ideas he instigates them and pushes them through. So he turns your tree uspide down. At the moment our leaves are having the problem!!!

We sort it though, and your article will be a big help.

Posted by: Richard Michie | Feb 2, 2006 3:29:53 AM

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