The concept of risk provides us with an excellent opportunity to bridge between formal economic theory and personal business experience. Economics provides us with rigorous understanding of risk and uncertainty and the distinctions between them and their various types. But risk — the word that we use in everyday conversation — bring with it subjective feelings that affect how we approach it.
It’s appropriate for entrepreneurs to reframe the concept of risk so that they can embrace it wholeheartedly.
Risk has traditionally been framed as the downside of a choice. It’s the potential negative outcome for anything we try. But we just have to look at our own lives to see that a lot of risks we’ve taken have generated upside, whether that’s choosing a college, getting married, or taking a particular job. If we feel good about the outcome, then risk is a path to reward.
Part of the reframing of risk is to see it as a process rather than a single choice.
Risk can sound like it comes at us as a single choice, or an event, or a once-and-for-all decision. It’s much better to think of risk as a process — a behavioral process rather than a decision-making threshold. The risk process is one of experimentation —taking small steps, trying different things, getting feedback from the market, making adjustments, then trying some more things.
Instead of “starting a business”, we can think of setting out on the pathway to entrepreneurship. Instead of “committing to a future new product launch”, we can think initiating an exploration with low resource commitment until we have better feedback knowledge in order to take the next step and commit more resources. We can think of a new initiative as an experience gap that we look to fill with knowledge from experts and experience from mentors or advisors who’ve done something similar.
The key to this reframed risk process is a courageous commitment to perpetual learning.
Through learning, we can all redefine our understanding of risk and re-establish our relationship with it. A part of risk is the ego-bruising realization that we don’t know everything and can therefore make mistakes, or take actions that have unintended consequences.
By embracing learning, we establish a social reward for not knowing — learning is viewed positively, as a reward. Developing new knowledge is one of the primary roles of the entrepreneur. While it may take intellectual courage to own up to not knowing, the courage is rewarded with new understanding and new advantages. There’s always opportunity to learn more.
Imagination is an antidote to risk.
Imagination can overcome risk. We all have the capability of imagining future achievements — “future wins”, as Angie Morgan Witkowski put it. Imagination can be an exercise in creativity, and it’s OK to let it run wild, releasing our minds from the restraints that risk can impose. Taking the time for free-thinking can be very beneficial.
The pathway to the imagined future is to marry possibility with probability. In our exercise in imagination, it’s easy to eliminate the impossible. But we shouldn’t limit the possible. We can start from the imagined possible future and then work back through probabilities about whether we can accomplish it. Angie stimulated her business imagination vi a sidewalk margarita bar in Florida and ultimately opened a successful coffee shop in Traverse City, Michigan. It was a process of working backwards from what was possible to what was more probably, given her circumstances.
Similarly, her consulting business started by imagining writing a book about a better style of leadership than is taught in business school. She contacted literary agents, who encouraged her not only to write the book but to also start a speaking business. The audience for her speaking engagements sought consulting help, and she developed a series of workshops as part of the delivery system. Her consulting business is now cross-industry, from startups to the oil-and-gas majors, and worldwide. It started with imagination.
Imagination is complemented by hard work and realistic capacity assessment.
It would be wrong to think that the reframing of risk to action and perpetual learning comes additional without costs. Angie mentioned two. One is hard work. All learning pathways must be undertaken with the commitment to working as hard as it takes to advance. It requires time, effort, and continuous review. The intellectual courage that Angie highlighted is hard work in itself — the cognitive work of thinking about how to think, exercising cognitive discipline, exploring flexible options such as design thinking, that require the effort of looking at problems from many different perspectives.
The second cost Angie mentioned is the honest assessment of our capacity. We can imagine future wins and assess the probability of achieving them, but we must be honest about our capacity. Do we have the resources, do we have the skills, can we assemble the right team, are we willing to undertake the hard work?
Putting hard work and capacity together means we don’t risk an inadequate attempt to solve the target problem. As Angie put it, using Marines language, don’t be “half-assed”.
Action is more important than planning.
Angie’s prescription in her book, Bet On You, is for one-third of time to be allocated to planning and two-thirds making things happen. The make-things-happen part is what generates the feedback loop and learning that is so important. Here are Economics For Business, we’d probably relegate planning to 10% or less of resource allocation, but the point is the same. Action is the more important.
There is one aspect of planning that can deliver extra value, and that’s planning for failure, or contingency planning. Our imagination should be partially applied to imagining what could go wrong. How would the contingency transpire? What would we do next if it did? We should prepare for resilience in the aftermath of a setback.
A plan, in Angie’s words (which, in turn, come from the Marines), is a reference point for change.
Ultimately, risk must feel good.
If the antidote to the downside of risk is imagining future wins, then we can also benefit from a focus on the wins we experience every day. Choose the path that feels good both tomorrow and today, and that makes all efforts worthwhile.
Bet On You: How To Win With Risk by Angie Morgan and Courtney Lynch: Mises.org/E4B_203_Book
Bet On You Podcast: Mises.org/E4B_203_Podcast
Angie Morgan Witkowski on LinkedIn: Mises.org/E4B_203_LinkedIn