Thursday, September 15, 2011

Risk Model Inversion

Over the last few years I have had several discussions with colleagues, co-workers and friends around turning their mental models of risk management upside down (at least as far as it applies to taking risks within a particular job or consulting engagement).

Way back in 2003 I had just accepted a new job at a fortune 500 company and did "the unexpected". I took a big risk in my first project. Coming from the outside, I was surprised to learn that my employer at that time had not been using conventional UX practices or deliverables in their projects. I went to both my teammates and to my leadership and told them that the best way for my project to be successful was to create wireframes and perform a paper-prototype test on the interface (neither of which had they ever seen before). I did this knowing one basic truth:

Starting at day 1 in any job or engagement, your ability to try new things or to get change-oriented requests approved decreases over time. Stated another way: People don't like to crush the spirit of the new guy/gal.

The enthusiasm and energy of the new recruit is a cherished asset that will erode over time. Most clients, managers and co-workers, in my experience, unconsciously seek to extend that honeymoon period of rose-colored glasses by allowing the new teammate to demonstrate their capabilities (i.e., "give them enough rope to hang themselves").

Many people I personally know have tended to go the opposite direction and follow their instincts in choosing to "play it safe and establish themselves" in their new role before "shaking things up". In my experience, this rarely works and in fact works less the further/higher you go in your career. Case in point: a colleague who opined that one of his friends, who was the president of his firm, was unable to make the changes he thought were necessary to increase the overall chances of success within his shop. This was very curious to me as I sometimes have a hard time understanding why autonomy is not pushed down along with responsibility within organizations. In response to my question he summed it up thusly:

"He has been in his job 2 years and has not been able to meet the one part of the established success criteria. Given his perceived shortcomings, why would the owner/board take the risk now?"

Most leaders put someone in a position to fill some gap. Whether it's solving a problem or taking advantage of an opportunity, the wishful-thinking perception of the leader (especially the higher you go) is that the new resource will be "fire and forget" (i.e., give basic direction and then hear the good news at the end of the project or the engagement).

The dynamics in the large organizations I have worked with, tend toward rewarding those who perform without flaw rather than those who exhibit a presence of strength. This bias leads to any flaw becoming magnified and being used as the catch-all reason to not moving into unfamiliar territory (because most humans and animals alike correlate unfamiliar with uncomfortable). This discomfort with the unfamiliar tends to be smaller in magnitude than the discomfort of crushing the spirit of the new guy, but depressingly is larger in magnitude than the discomfort of saying no to the established person even if the established person has a good track record (see chart below).
The point where the two discomforts become close enough to flip the bias of the decision maker tends to happen somewhere between 90 and 180 days. I believe this is specifically because most of these types of decisions are made based upon qualitative relationship dynamics. The better you get to know a person, the more comfortable you become in pushing back. In other words familiarity breeds contempt where contempt equals comfort in being the source of disillusionment or disappointment.

I'm not sure I know how to solve this, in fact I am sure that I don't know. I only claim to have a method to identify a time to take risks when the tolerance for change is greatest.

Rating Time:

Playing it safe at the beginning: Garbage

Taking timely risks intelligently: Like it

"Remember that postcard Grandpa sent us from Florida of that Alligator biting that woman's bottom? That's right, we all thought it was hilarious. But, it turns out we were wrong. That alligator was sexually harrassing that woman." - Homer Simpson