The communications landscape becomes more complex by the minute, testing our ability to forecast which messages will reach and motivate the right people.
In this context, it's worth asking ourselves what qualities define a standout communications professional? Intelligence? Insight? Strategic thinking? Yes, yes, and yes. But I would argue that a new quality has crept up toward the top of the heap — our ability and willingness to take risks.
Within the agency world, risk-taking might manifest itself as a creative and untested social media campaign idea for a client, the formation of a “flash business” within an agency to tap new markets, or even a bordering-on-crazy new business proposal. Companies that want to command attention and respect in the future must take risks, and as communicators we must be right there poking and prodding — the complexity of the world demands it.
But with risk comes the constant and real threat of failure. Tapping the psychology of risk allows us to put safeguards in place to use that threat of failure in a positive way. For example, one characteristic of true entrepreneurs is the belief that they are in control of their choices and surroundings. Applied to agency life, this means risk-taking will be dangerous and untenable for someone who has no control.
Although the concept of “going on tilt” is used to describe a specific gambling behavior (taking increasingly more aggressive and irrational risks following an unexpected and significant loss), it can also apply in any high-risk communications strategy. We have to recognize and respond when the risk has become too great, when the threat of failure far outweighs the promise of success. Entrepreneurs, those consummate business risk-takers, have often been spotted going on tilt.
Tim Harford, columnist for the Financial Times, recently wrote a book titled “Adapt,” which discusses the “importance of adaptive, trial-and-error processes in tackling issues such as fostering innovation, climate change, poverty, the financial crises, and conflict.” Trial and error is just another form of risk-taking.
Harford cuts to the heart of the matter with the best description of rational risk-taking I've heard: “Ideally, I'd like to see many more complex problems approached with a willingness to experiment. The process has three components: first, try lots of different things; second, make sure the experiments are at a small scale so that when things go wrong, it's not a catastrophe; and third, make sure there's a reliable way to tell the difference between success and failure.”
Jenny Moede is EVP, North America at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide