Using Risk Management to Overcome the Fear of Failure
by Sharon Flemings

Failure. Perhaps this is one of our greatest fears in tackling change in our lives and in our professions. So many of us know we can do better than our current state – in our lives and in our organizations. But, what is it about fearing failure that causes us to be frozen in place? How can we overcome the fear of failure so we can realize greater opportunity and success?

The news is filled month after month with stories of companies who fail at a particular initiative. Just take a look at all the literature and studies about technology project failures – those alone would scare anyone into being cautious about taking on that kind of project. Then there are failed marketing campaigns, failed product launches, and the list goes on.

There are any number of reasons failure intimidates us into inaction – particularly in our organizations. Perhaps you are a member of an organization which preaches the entrepreneurial spirit and “encourages” risk taking, only to discover after taking a calculated risk you are penalized for taking that risk. Maybe your organization does not encourage risk taking and experimentation at all, only to remain mired in sub-optimal performance. These are only two situations which cause employees and managers alike to avoid taking action on challenges and issues which everyone knows need to be addressed. (Note: this is also one of the primary reasons for employee dissatisfaction in an organization…)

Have hope! There are ways to identify and mitigate specific issues that, at the root, are driving the fear. Using risk management principles to navigate specific initiatives or situations can minimize, if not eliminate, risk and can go a long way to reduce the stress and anxiety the fear of failure can cause.

Use the following three steps to identify and address the fear of failure – these work in almost any situation:

Start slow to go fast
Change in any organization can be a challenge, often presenting perceived threats to employees, customers, vendors and other stakeholders. When undertaking a change initiative, start the process slowly. Take time to identify and define the change that is being considered. Gain input from all affected parties, listening carefully for suggestions and ideas. Listening reduces the perceived threat to others by communicating that their ideas are welcome and of value.

Develop a communication plan which address “outgoing” communications (who will receive them and when), and feedback mechanisms. Throughout the change process, listen carefully for feedback - especially that which comes from informal channels. In large, multi-national corporations it is said that one angry phone call from a customer represents 10,000 customers with the same opinion. Consider that when you hear negative feedback about your initiative, and address the concerns immediately.

Communicate often and through multiple channels being very specific about the 5 “W”’s – who is involved, what the change is, when the change will take place, where the change will occur and why the change is necessary.

Once you have defined your initiative, gained feedback and consensus, and laid the groundwork for the change, you can speed up the pace of change in implementing the change. This helps build momentum and enthusiasm for the value the change will provide.

Minimize and mitigate risk
There are a variety of ways to manage risk factors in an initiative; however, one of the best and easiest ways to manage is by creating a Risk Assessment Matrix. This is simply a matrix listing each identified risk (whether real or perceived), and an assessment of 1) the likelihood of occurrence, and 2) impact if the risk were to occur.

If you want to get fancy, you can assign numeric values (e.g. 0-2) to the likelihood of occurrence and the impact. Then, you can multiply the likelihood and impact values to obtain a total “score”. A score of 0 or 1 would be low risk, while a score of 4 would be a high risk.

Depending on the scale and organizational impact of your initiative, develop a specific mitigation strategy for each medium and/or high risk item you have identified. In addition, identify the specific trigger(s) or event(s) which will highlight that the risk is occurring so you and your team know what to be looking for over the course of the initiative. If/when these triggers occur, you will already have your mitigation strategy defined so it is only a matter of executing the strategy. You’ll be in a position to react quickly, rather than be left wringing your hands and trying to figure out what to do.

Have a backup plan
Let’s admit it, not all change initiatives go off without a hitch. Sometimes the challenges are so great that you just can’t move forward until the issues are addressed. Be prepared for these situations with a backup plan. Perhaps you’ll continue with the existing processes, or maybe you will decide to use a modified or hybrid process.

Early in the project, define the various scenarios which could occur and have a backup plan for each scenario. Be sure to include decision criteria for each scenario, so it is clear as to how the decision will be made to continue moving forward, or move to a backup plan. Review this with your team ahead of time so everyone know what will happen in the event of a problem, and how the situation will be resolved. This alone provides a level of control when stress increases, and communicates confidence in the team’s ability to make the right decision.

Let’s all vow not to allow the fear of failure to intimidate us any longer, and keep us from performing at our very best. Identify the root causes of the fear, identify the strategies to address each cause, create a backup plan and move confidently forward. As Alan Weiss, of Summit Consulting, once said “Be bold – you won’t get shot.”

Related articles:
Understand the Current State
Identifying the Strategic Processes