Mitigate Risk


Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

Mitigate Risk

Playing it Safe

According to Bill Taylor, founding editor of FastCompany magazine, playing it safe may be the riskiest path of all for your organization. Safety can be a trap, in that you never move forward.

Two activities in my past are sailing and rock climbing. When a storm approaches, large ships move out to sea away from the rocks and shoals. They want and need room to maneuver. They would rather rig the ship for heavy seas and ride out the storm

with plenty of water beneath the keel. In our case, we were not always able to put out to open water. So we would rig spring-lines and extra fenders between the dock and our sailboat as rough weather approached. The point is that while we did not take foolish risks (smaller boat, with kids, in a storm) we did risk being sailors in the first place. And we did get caught at sea in storms from time to time and had no choice but to ride it out. The enjoyment of sailing on the Great Lakes (in our case) was well worth the risks.

When it came to rock climbing, safety didn’t mean giving up the joy of climbing. It meant learning how to climb safely. It meant using common sense as well as technical skills when climbing. We checked all the equipment before each climb. We made sure to place anchors solidly and space them properly. In other words, we worked to mitigate the risk of a fall, not to eliminate it.

Safety in Business

I’m convinced that there is no way to eliminate risk in business. Life itself is a risk. The best we can do is educate ourselves about the risks, keep our eyes open for new risks, and keep a balance between moving forward and becoming irrelevant. If we insist on “playing it safe,” we will undoubtedly miss new opportunities.

The dangers of playing it safe aren’t sudden, obvious, and dramatic. They don’t make headlines.

We don’t see news headlines that say, “Low-risk approach forces local business to file for bankruptcy,” or, “Stunningly conservative move pushes global pharmaceutical company to the brink of failure,” or “Man retires after a mediocre career and feels painful remorse for never having laid anything on the line.”

—Doug Sundheim, HBR, The Hidden Dangers of Playing it Safe

Each of us has a different tolerance for risk. And each of us has a different tolerance for the effort to understand and reduce risk. We often hire people such as Financial Advisors, CPAs, and Attorneys to help us wade through the complexities of risk analysis. The point is that however, we address the challenge, we have to understand and take reasonable risks.

Head for the Ocean

We need to move our “ship of state” out of safe harbor and head into the open, blue ocean. Ships aren’t meant to be at anchor for any length of time. Of course, we want to make sure equipment on board is properly maintained, that we have the right provisions and we know where we’re headed and have at least charted a preliminary course. It may appear that we’re safe while at anchor or in the harbor. But those willing to risk the open seas are taking on cargo, delivering goods, and experiencing the challenge of plying the oceans. They are out-sailing us.

Head for the Cliffs

By way of an example: Those who play it safe, on the ground, do not take the risk of bumps, bruises scrapes (or even death). To wit:

From 1998 to 2011, the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group rescued 2,198 mountain and wilderness victims in Boulder County. Rock climbing victims were 428 or 19.5% of all victims.

But those who are willing to scale the cliff will enjoy the physical effort, sense of accomplishment  and the incredible view at the top. They are rewarded for taking the risk.


We do not need to be reminded of how the pace of change is accelerating. Change is in the news just about every day. The results of change are visible to us on a weekly basis. The increased pace of change and the continuous disruption of stable markets means we cannot afford to play it safe. Safety is not being trapped by the “sunk cost” argument. We have to take the chance of disrupting ourselves rather than letting a competitor do it for us. Business is a risk. We need to understand the risk, do what we can to mitigate it, and keep moving ourselves and our organization forward.