Making it safe to discuss risk-taking

Discuss-risk-takingI created this visual for a professional service firm that was toying with some innovative approaches to winning business (both new and repeat). I say ‘toying with’ because they weren’t actually taking serious action, they were just talking in circles. This simple chart helped them break out.

The circular discussion went like this:

“Our services are looking like commodities – we’ve got to bring them some value-adding ideas, and some better contract and fee structures.”

“Let’s not rock the boat. I don’t want us to upset our clients who know what they are getting by coming in with wacky new ideas.”

“But while we are ‘not rocking the boat’, what stops a competitor coming in with something fresh? The clients might then think we are complacent and jump ship.”

“But they tell us how they want us to engage with them through their procurement process, and if we start doing something new, they may think we aren’t listening, are difficult to deal with, or are loose cannons”


Decision-making conversations often get polarised between “Yes we need to do this to stay ahead”, vs. “No, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. What do you do?

First recognise that all the protagonists could probably appreciate the other point of view if they were dispassionately looking at someone else’s business. They are locked in by their personal, visceral involvement. If you can create a bit of distance, a bit of objectivity, you will get a more useful conversation.

This chart can help by expanding the range of possibilities under consideration, and move the risk-reward discussion away from an Either-Or question towards a continuum. I’ve found that once people step back, and reframe their debate by placing the decision into one or another of the boxes, they are able to reach agreement on where and when to test new ideas (for example with potentially high-value but low probability new prospects) and on how to more objectively decide whether being apparently safe is actually risky or not.