A Survivor's Guide to Risk Taking

Risk Is an Asset, Not a Liability. Here Are Three Ways to Learn to Love It

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Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/Ad Age

If we really loved risk, we would be scaling mountains, performing stunts or cave diving. Not working in marketing. But often, the way to create real business impact is tied to taking risks. The trick is that this requires marketers to stop associating risk with impending doom and to start viewing it as a gateway to new opportunity. In fact, a willingness to take risks is a marketer's greatest asset right now.

From our experience working with disruptive brands and business models, we've seen the best results when marketers are willing to shed their fears—and even some letters from their titles—and transform from marketers into makers. Not in a Williamsburg Maker Faire manner, but in an agile, high-wire walking, "fail fast and keep going" kind of way.

We know it's easier said than done. But if your ambition is to change minds and models within your organization, and your brand's growth trajectory, we have three tips to help get you there:

Treat risk as an asset—for both you and your team.

Too often risk is viewed as a liability, and not the asset it should be. The most innovative companies and ambitious upstarts have turned taking risks into not just millions of dollars in opportunity, but tens of billions and the reputation gains that come with it. Naturally, putting risk in a new context requires reframing failure. At Uber, when a meeting goes badly, the attitude is not "Oh no, I guess that's dead." Instead, we focus on what we learned, what didn't work and how we move forward.

Now is the time for brands to go big or go home. It's time to stop mitigating risk by treating it as a debt we take on that needs to be paid off. Let's start viewing risks as assets that accrue toward a mission of greater magnitude. Understand risk as making something new, rather than giving something up: The idea of taking risk shouldn't ignite fear; it should move us to create something totally new. The secret is that something new doesn't necessarily have to be novel.

There are no original thoughts.

It's incredibly rare to uncover an idea that no one has ever had (or shared) before, especially considering the vast expanse of the internet. Even that's not an original thought! The art of innovation happens when you pinpoint the confluence of forces that can transform an idea into reality. This isn't just an ability to polish one thought to a spectacular shine, but to consider the wider context for an idea.

First, are you looking beyond your category to find new sources of inspiration, or new ways to remix your brand or business? Are you drawing from enough different sources to create a level of serendipity? Are you tapped into diverse trends across art, commerce, technology, education and more?

Second, is the existing technology infrastructure ready for your idea? Is there enough consumer behavior adoption or opportunity for your idea to scale? Instagram, for example, came to market at the perfect time, right as storytelling on the web was accelerating and smartphone use was peaking.

Finally, is your idea playing into culture? Do you have an understanding of how consumer perceptions or behaviors have changed? Do you understand how people view the role of brands in their lives? How do we actively consider these factors in creating something new?

There are no guarantees, so enjoy the ride!

Moore's law tells us technology will continue to evolve behavior, as hardware will only continue its exponential drive toward efficiency, while software will continue to enable new ways of connecting people and ideas. The confluence of these two forces means the only real constant will be change—but change at a scale never felt before.

As marketers and as makers, we need to be comfortable with change and to stop thinking we can guarantee past success. We can't just rely on the way things were always done, because that way will eventually become irrelevant.

The real risk is not taking any risks at all and watching the world pass you by.  

Jonah Disend is founder of Redscout, a brand strategy, design and innovation agency. Ian Chee is head of brand strategy at Uber

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