Playing it safe - Part 1.

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Spike - over at Brains On Fire - struck a major cord with this post today:

"I just don’t understand how SVPs of marketing departments can afford to play it safe. Playing it safe means trying to please all the people all of the time. Playing it safe is the bedfellow of “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” (...) It’s the antagonist of courage…and of change. It’s paying attention to office politics. It’s the tradition in traditional advertising. It’s complacent. It’s the same spread in the same pub for the fourth month in a row. Playing it safe has never, ever merited good results. Playing it safe always gets found out. Exposed.

"Playing it safe puts your job in danger. You were not hired to play it safe, were you? I’m not saying that you have to be a loose cannon – but come on. DO something. Will your resume say, “Played it safe at company X for 5 years,” or “Moved the needle. Changed the culture. Pushed the boundaries. Shrunk comfort zones. Made a difference.”

"Is the choice really that tough?

"Marketing can be meaningful. But you have to make it that way."
Equally insightful is this post left by Jason Oke - over at Leo Burnett:

"I’ve been thinking about this exact point for a while as well. In my experience, it seems that most people are driven more by the desire to avoid failure, and more specifically to avoid blame for failure, rather than a desire to acheive success. Most people would rather have safe 1% growth on their brands than aim for 50% or 100% growth and changing the category, because that entails risk of failure (if it was guaranteed, everyone would have done it already). This is partly driven by the inherently conservative nature of people - people who have kids and mortgages and so on - to not want to put their neck on the line. It’s partly driven by a cultural belief that failure is bad and demeaning, rather than an opportunity to learn and grow. It’s also partly institutional culture and economics - most companies compensate people based on short-term growth, rather than long-term vision, and stigmatize failure. Nobody wants to be the person who lost a chunk of shareholder money. Really, how many organizations actively encourage risk-taking and challenging convention? Not a lot.

"This is why so many decisions are not made by individual judgement, but by committee, or by research. These are structures that mitigate individual responsibility for a decision. I’ve seen people approve something which no one really believes will work because “the research said people liked it” - even if everyone kind of knows the research was flawed. But they approve nonetheless, because if it fails, they’re blameless: “the consumers told us to do it.”

"It takes a brave individual to base a decision on their own judgement, especially in defiance of conventional wisdom or company politics or research. That makes it a rare individual. But these are usually the people who change the world."

I have worked for the company that Jason describes... and chances are that anyone reading this blog has as well. (If you're still in school, you haven't yet, but you will.)

It basically comes down to management culture... which sometimes changes not just from company to company, but also from department to department - and is completely people-driven: One manager or director may be a bold visionary who drives innovation and fuels excitement in the marketplace, while her replacement may be a conformist functionary who will let internal politics dictate his decisions. Subtle HR changes like these can make or break departments, divisions, companies, and... yes, brands pretty-much overnight.

I've found myself caught in the middle of these types of management shifts, and I am here to tell you that they suck. There is nothing sadder than seeing a company with enormous potential throw its success away by "playing it safe." By not having the guts to stand out. By not having the oysters to try and be the best.

I could tell you stories that would make your blood turn to ice. I really could.

Like Spike says, taking chances isn't about being a loose cannon. Quite the contrary. I hate to use sports metaphors because they're so cliche... but they're also easy to understand. Here's the thing: No matter what sport you're into, games are won not by playing defensively. They are won by playing offensively. You have to score in order to win.

I will say it again: You have to score in order to win.

Heck, you have to score more than the other guys in order to win. The tougher your competition, the more you have to up your game. The more you have to score. As we all know, every successful goal or point or touchdown comes after a string of failures. You try and fail. You try and fail again. You keep trying and failing until you finally score the point. The faster and systematically you can do this, the faster you will score more points. No matter how good you are at anything you do, success is always a numbers' game, especially when it comes to innovation. Remember IDEO (the design juggernaut that brought us the computer mouse, for starters)? Their product development motto is pretty-much this: Fail often to succeed faster. Sound familiar? You bet.

The point is this: Defense doesn't win jack diddly. Sooner or later, defense fails. It aways does. Playing it safe is a sure-fire way to make sure that you, your company, your career, your relationships, your life, your talents will never go anywhere. You have to take chances in order to win. Calculated risks. You have to be willing to risk tripping all over yourself in front of everyone... and chances are that you will. A lot. And that's okay. If it falls into your methodology, if you make it clear from the start that it is part of the game plan, then no one with a brain and a drive to accomplish something special will have a problem with your planned failures. I guarantee it.

Within the right context, failure is not failure at all. Every hurdle, every speedbump, every obstacle is a point along a learning curve, and a step in the right direction. It is part of a process. Nothing more.

I used to get excited when the products I was in charge of developing failed a test during their prototyping phase. Why? Because the failure exposed a weakness we hadn't anticipated (or confirmed one that we had). Because failure in testing meant that the engineers would quickly find a solution to it... and that we were one big step closer to being ready to go into production. Every new product, every new idea, every new campaign has a finite number of inherent weaknesses and flaws. One of the jobs of a project manager, no matter the discipline or indusrty, is to uncover each of these flaws BEFORE its final release. Every discovered flaw reduces the pool of unknown flaws, until there are none left and the product is ready. In this way, failure testing is a wickedly effective process.

In this context, failure is good.

Very good.

The "safe" execs don't always understand that. Interestingly, the products they were in charge of bringing to market (copies of copies of copies designed and made overseas) never failed in testing, but had a very high failure rate out in the real world. (But by the time these problems occured, it was easy to pass the buck and blame the failures on manufacturing and quality control issues. Lame.) The products that my group designed hardly ever failed in the real world, but getting them launched was a much tougher battle. (Wow. Was it ever.)

And our products were cool and exciting, but that's a whole other story. Ahem.

One of the fundamental differences between the "safe" execs and the visionary ones is always this: In a meeting, the safe group always asks "tell me how this thing works," but avoids the tough questions. The visionary group asks "tell me how it fails," and immediately starts working on finding solutions to the failures and make the idea work.

Some people are afraid of challenges, because of the risk of failure. Others get excited by challenges because of the possibility of success. Belonging to one group or the other is a choice we make every single day: We choose to work for innovative companies, or settle for the relative safety of boring cubicle jobs. We choose to go for it and risk failure, or settle for average. We order something new off the menu or go with the same old chicken sandwich. We take charge of our careers or let other people mismanage them for us. We choose to make a difference or to not. We choose to be successful, or to be... safe somewhere in the middle of the bell curve.

When it comes to innovation, to revolutionary product design, to the way that you interact with your customers, to the way that you create fans... to the way that you create something extraordinary, there is no place for safety. Sorry. It's just the way it is.

If you want your business to succeed, not just survive at 1-6% annual growth, you have to take the wheel, put your foot on the gas, and take the lead. You have to take chances. You have to make decisions. You have to be the one to pave the way. You have to be willing to fail, learn from your mistake(s), and keep going.

If you are a business leader, a CMO, an athlete, a military officer, a researcher, a movie director or a politician, unless you are willing to do exactly that, you might as well pack up and go home.

(Tomorrow, we'll talk about how - more often than not - most of our "jobs" are weighed down and stalled by "don't rock the boat" swampwater.

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