BMJ Stone
EZG Manufacturing
Federated Insurance
Fraco USA, Inc.
Hohmann and Barnard, Inc.
Hydro Mobile, Inc.
iQ Power Tools
Kennison Forest Products, Inc.
Mortar Net Solutions
Non-Stop Scaffolding
Pullman Ermator
Tradesmen's Software, Inc.
August 13, 2002 4:49 PM CDT

Risk and Reality: Viewing Risk as Another Business Tool


I'm a fairly confident person. Ability, skill and intellect-wise, I hold my own and people tell me I communicate well. Physically, I don't think I'm grotesquely ugly ? if measured by the number of small children who run screaming away when they see me.

I seldom back down in arguments when I know I'm right. And I seldom back down in arguments when I don't know I'm right. My demeanor's generally collected, my blood pressure three digits over two, and my truck almost paid off.

Confidence is good.

I'm guessing your confidence level is about the same. And why not? After all, you are good at what you do. You have developed your skills, paid your dues and built your business ... and you do deliver good service.

But if you and I are so committed and cocksure in our beliefs and abilities, why do we bolt like flaming rabbits when we and we alone conjure up new and truly unique yet untried ideas? For example, we might develop a truly unique marketing approach for our services and/or products only to talk ourselves out of it moments later because (and say it with me): No one else is doing it!

Sound familiar? Admit it, you've done it. I do it all the time. Our tainted rationalization goes something like this: "Well, if Monstrous Masonry, Inc. down the street isn't doing it, it can't be a good idea. Right?"

"I mean, look at them, they're huge! They have a marketing department ? with marketing people! There must be something I don't see."

And on it goes.

On soul searching, science, and sheep
So why are we wired like this? Why do we doubt our intuition? How can we march assuredly through our daily business travails with poise and confidence only to doubt ourselves at the first sign of personal yet real innovation?

After exhaustive research ? OK, I really didn't do any research but I was out late last night and I am exhausted ? I believe I've narrowed the answer down to two distinct possibilities:

We're cautious, calculated, detailed business professionals who scrutinize, weigh and analyze any and all alternatives before making crucial and capital-depleting business decisions.

We're chickens.

Now, let's look at our options. By utilizing the method known in higher-level scientific circles as SUTTERAM (Saucerman's Universal Theorem That the Earth Revolves Around Me), we can quickly surmise beyond a shadow of a doubt that the businessperson described in answer #1 doesn't exist, That's because I've never met anyone like that. By default then, we're left with the fact that we're cowards ? sometimes.

It's true. In my many years in this business ? going on 251 now, or so it feels ? I've come to observe that most of us possess far more insight and creativeness then we admit. We also all have similar thoughts and insights. But, and here's the odd part, along with this there's also a common, recurring, reflexive, sheepish tendency to forego our own insight and retreat to a more comfortable ground of marketing mimicry. We tend to steal, with minor change for appearance-sake, the campaigns of other companies and hope for the same consumer reaction. We react instead of act. We follow, not lead.

Our competitor is the cause and we're complacently content being the effect. We're safe, but we've relinquished that all too rare opportunity to be truly unique and innovative; an opportunity that has led to incredible success stories for multitudes of wealthy and happily retired business people before us.

Not that we periodically don't bemoan our fate. We do reflect at times. We wring our hands, scratch our heads, read of another marketing success by our most fierce competitor and mutter our bitterness over not following through on a similar thought. "They ain't so great," we say. "I thought of the same thing last year." (Pause) "Guess I shoulda' acted..."

And we return to our day.

Can you say, "Baaaaaaaaa!"

Being a coward has a downside
But don't go selling your wool for sweaters just yet. There's still hope. What have we learned? Well, first the bad stuff.

We've learned our competition is now out in front; we've learned the bandwagon has started in the parade and all we can do now is jump on; and we've learned that momentum ? so integral in successful market surges ? has passed. Oh, and we're sure this is no way to become an industry leader.

But lo and behold, we do discern something positive. We notice a recurring theme. We begin to understand a yet heretofore intangible and previously unquantifiable attribute permeating through our many marketing drubbings: the calculated element of risk.

It turns out that many, if not most, industry leaders didn't get to where they are now on luck, lineage, shady dealing, or even on their skills alone. Many simply had the courage to act on their beliefs and abilities.

They discovered along the way that risk ? in our example, a marketing risk ? and reward are inextricably linked and that sometimes taking a calculated risk was the only avenue left to guide their (sometimes) fledgling and teetering companies through inevitable down periods and market stagnation.

Search further and you will find that, indeed, history is virtually littered with these types of stories; stories about leaders who, no smarter or more skilled than you or me, simply took the right risk at the right time.

But it all sounds so...risky!

Exactly! Otherwise it wouldn't be called risk. Do some risks fail? Yes. Is any risk fool-proof? No. Could there be potentially serious consequence, financial or otherwise, if the risk we take goes wrong?

Of course, but I have found that it's generally not as bad as one thinks. Office overhead aside, sometimes all you've invested is enough to cover ink and paper. But always remember, assuming we're taking a calculated business risk to ultimately enhance revenue, the reward you reap (if successful) will be much greater due to sheer innovation and freshness than the old wagon-jumping technique.

Now of course I'm not advocating rushing into risky ventures blindly and naively. There are steps you can take to greatly improve your chances. While a risk will never be a sure thing, it can be a surer thing.

One method to this end, as mundane as it sounds, is simple persistence; good 'ol American stick-to-it-ivnus. Ideas are wonderful, but you can't just simply unleash an idea on the world and expect new consumers to beat a path to your door. The idea needs to be nurtured and built upon even when it doesn't appear to be a rocketing success.

We're back to having faith in your ability. Success in business (and life for that matter) has always been more about perseverance than genius. This means believing in yourself and your decisions long after the initial "yahoo-damn-the-torpedoes" emotion in the beginning.

Thomas Edison wasn't that much smarter than his contemporaries; he simply tried harder, had better discipline, and carried all the way through with his ideas. I feel the same about Bell, Howe, and Franklin.

We all have plans, schemes and ideas we've concocted over our lifetimes. It's the execution of those ideas and persevering when things aren't going well that separates the winners and also-rans.

When failing isn't failing
Humans don't like to fail. Although it may not seem so at the time, that "failed" risk you just took may not have been such a failure after all. In fact, you may be closer to your goal then ever and not know it. I'd submit that many events in the past, at the time viewed as failures, were not only not failures but also actually remarkably (though perhaps unknowingly) effective promotional vehicles.

A classic example of this is with actress/singer/Miss America Vanessa Williams. We all know the story of how Ms. William's Miss America scandal seemed destined to plunge her into eternal ostracism. But she remained confident in herself. She fought through the criticism and uncertainty that most certainly accompanied it. And she persevered.

She learned from her experience and moved forward. Lo and behold, time went on and public memory and wrath softened and began melting away. Negativity faded, but the name-recognition remained. Nowadays, if you were to ask anyone ? at least the post-Mary-Ann-Mobley crowd ? who the most successful Miss America of all time is; many would give her name.

Let's bring this back to our industry's basics. What sort of risks are we talking about? Well, every risk doesn't have to be a radical departure from previous paths. It also doesn't have to be in-your-face-screaming-from-the-rooftops assault ? unless that works into your overall plan.

Sometimes a well-crafted but small departure from center is all you need. One of my favorite examples of this technique was with the soft, subtle and yet compellingly attractive marketing program launched by Apple Computers years back when they featured a simple gray-tone photo of their latest computer with the plain caption, "Introducing Lisa."

The ad was like someone whispering your name. The reader's immediate reaction was, "Who (or what) is Lisa?"

That was the hook. But there was more. Once you did understand that the ad was about a computer, there was the involuntary, inexplicably compelling mental exercise of relating the lifeless collection of circuitry, plastic and glass on the page to a living woman. This is called personification and writers use it all the time to bring life to the lifeless.

You now view the product ? and don't forget, Apple was getting steep competition from IBM and others ? with the same venerable and romantic perspective as you view the glorious sailing vessels of old which were also named for ladies.

Though advertising in its truest form ? however skewed from rational thought or reality it may seem ? you now correlated the Apple product to something inherently pleasant. Marketing had done their job.

I know this sounds clich? and "Dilbert-esque," but all it takes is thinking outside the box. It paid dividends for Apple and it can work for you. And the good news is that you don't have to be as large as Apple to use innovation to your advantage. Any business, large or small can benefit. But that's only if you believe in yourself.

About the Author

With over 25 years in construction, primarily as an estimator and project manager, Steve Saucerman now writes, speaks and consults for the construction industry. He also teaches part-time in the Building Construction Technology division for Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill. He has published two books and over 350 articles to date and his writing is featured in construction periodicals all over the world.


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