In a past post, I referred to two questions that I return to time and again: What am I protecting? and What am I willing to risk? These are at the heart of almost every decision. A leader is constantly confronted with protecting the status quo or taking a risk on something new. It’s an age-old dilemma: Do I stick with what is tried and true (even if it’s not quite sufficient) or do I take a different tack in the hopes of a better solution (and risk failure and criticism)?
This is a much more difficult set of questions than first glance might indicate. At the heart of every institution there are things worth protecting; values, morality, core commitments and beliefs. As that circle expands, decisions about the value and/or merit of “hanging on” to an existing way of doing things becomes a little more iffy. Frankly, the momentum of “the way things have been done,” is difficult to stop. Seth Godin, in Tribes, states:
The status quo is persistent and resistant. It exists because everyone wants it to. Everyone believes that what they’ve got is probably better than the risk and fear that come with change. Seth Godin
We should only protect those things that are essential; the things that differentiate us and guide our vision. Everything else is fair game. Everything else ought to be open to debate, discussion, tweaking, and replacement. Even the core elements ought to be able to withstand scrutiny as we probe them to be sure that they don’t need to be refined or altered to better fit the purpose. There is a correlation between the number of things that we try to protect and the number of possible solutions: The more givens there are, the fewer options there are.
The art of this everything-is-on-the-table kind of thinking is that too little of it results in a stale and musty protectionism. Too much of it can create an unstable, even schizophrenic culture. The balance point is defined by deciding to seek health, appreciating and learning from legacy, and believing that the best days and ideas are still to come.
The answer to the second question, What am I willing to risk?, is partly answered as you decide on the first. By, definition, the things you are willing to put on the table (money, process, organizational charts, structure, etc.) are things you are willing to risk…if those things are REALLY on the table. The rest of the answer often has to do with the personality of the individual and the institution: How averse or tolerant are you to criticism, uncertainty, failure, hard work, new ideas, the emergence of new leaders…? To be honest, we are generally more open to risking resources than our pride or reputation.
As you work on your next stage of visioning and planning, use these two questions for open discussion. Don’t determine what to protect or risk too quickly, especially if you’ve never wrestled with core beliefs or a vision statement. Take time to let things percolate. What ARE the essentials? What are those things that, if changed, fundamentally alter your course away from your vision? And, what are those things that you may be holding a bit too tightly? Are there programs, methods, issues, and processes that no longer support the core? The end of this honest discussion and deliberation is a much more reasoned (and probably smaller!) set of things worth protecting AND a much more thoughtful (and probably larger!) set of things worth risking.
A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for. – John A. Shedd
Progress always involves risk; you can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.— Frederick Wilcox