Opportunities to Fail

Some years back we developed an exercise that can be beneficial for every entrepreneur. We all want to manage risk – not take risk. I’ve said it before that taking risk is akin to rolling the dice. Managing risk is an intentional process to minimize or eliminate risk to the greatest extent possible. To this end we created a process called Opportunities to Fail.

Some might say that “Opportunities to Fail” sounds negative and ought to be called something else. But, it is named this way on purpose. Why? Because we believe that whether we succeed or fail is almost totally within our control. Thus, we have the opportunity to succeed or to fail – it’s up to us as entrepreneurs which we choose.

Let’s say that we are considering launching a new division, a new product or service, or embarking upon some other endeavor for which there are numerous risks. The Opportunities to Fail exercise begins with assembling all of the stakeholders from the team and beginning a series of brainstorming sessions. The first such session is that of identifying all of the different risks that are inherent surrounding whatever we are preparing to do. For this purpose we developed a simple Excel spreadsheet on which we log the risks. To each, we assign a numerical value on a scale of one to 10 – both in terms of Probability and Impact. We arbitrarily determined that we would weight Impact 25% higher. So, if a particular risk is assigned a 10 for Probability it means that there’s a high likelihood of this risk being realized. And if that same risk is also a 10 for Impact, it means that if the risk is realized, it could have a very detrimental effect. Thus, the Probability score is 10 and the Impact score is 12.5 (due to the 25% extra weighting) for a total score of 22.5.

Remember that during the first exercise we are only identifying the various risks and assigning Probability and Impact scores – we’re not solving anything yet. Usually this inventory process takes a couple of hours and there may be as many as 25, 30 or even more risks. When someone says, “An asteroid could drop out of the sky and destroy us,” it’s probably time to wrap it up. We then re-order the risks in the spreadsheet from the highest numerical value to the lowest, and circulate it to the stakeholders for a few days of contemplation. Everyone is empowered to offer additional risks during this time frame with their thoughts on scoring.

The second meeting of the group will take place within three or four days of the first, and is devoted to risk mitigation. We look at the highest scoring risks and discuss ways that we will prevent the risk from coming to fruition. In addition, wherever possible we also add a contingency plan in the event that somehow the risk “leaks through” our mitigation program. This way if a high-risk item bites us, it doesn’t kill us. We have found that there’s a natural breakpoint in the list. Perhaps there are 17 risks that rank at 14 or higher, and then there’s a gap with the next grouping of risks starting at a score of eight. We generally don’t worry too much about low-scoring risks as their Probability is usually low, and even if they happen, the Impact is minimal. Instead we spend our time ensuring that we have robust mitigation and contingency plans for the most dangerous risks.

At the end of the second meeting we ask this simple question – “Are we totally comfortable moving ahead with this endeavor?” If there is still fear and trepidation, then it means that we haven’t sufficiently mitigated one or more of the risks. Or it could mean that there is something nagging in the back of the minds of our team that still need to be put on the table. It’s at this point that we engage in additional discussion and mitigate further until we have total buy-in; we modify our endeavor to the point that everyone is comfortable, or we determine that should not move forward at all. The ultimate objective is to either move ahead knowing that we aren’t going to fail, or not to move forward at all.

A few days later a third meeting of stakeholders occurs. Each member of the group reaffirms his or her belief that we have adequately mitigated the risks and should proceed. Then we brainstorm for ways to Exploit the Opportunity. This is a lot of fun. We spend our time looking for ways that we can enhance the opportunity and make it even bigger and better than we initially envisioned – without adding new risks.

Utilizing the Opportunities to Fail exercise is a liberating experience. It puts us in a position to manage risk rather than take risk, and allows us to choose success.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 124 – Do the Hustle.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

This picture taken on October 18, 2015 shows a participant jumping off a platform for a wingsuit flight from Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiajie, central China’s Hunan province. Some 16 participants from 12 countries are taking part in the extreme sport event. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Alligator Food

When is the last time you thought about being eaten by an alligator? When was the last time you contemplated being run over by a cement mixer? Or, how about being beaned in the head by a meteorite? Probably never – right? The risk of any of these things ever happening is so low they never even crossed your mind. But there’s that pesky word that entrepreneurs love to hate . . . risk. As I write this we’ve launched a new year and it’s a good time to take stock of a lot of things.

Have you ever created a Risk Matrix? If not, let me provide some context. We entrepreneurs tend to rock and roll a lot. We have a lot on our plate and are generally an optimistic bunch. When it comes to the subject of risk we may not spend much time in contemplation. We roll with the punches and keep moving forward. This philosophy works most of the time – until it doesn’t. Sometimes what interrupts that forward movement is a risk we didn’t see coming.

Here’s how the Risk Matrix works. Slow down for a moment. Stop juggling. Don’t worry about e-mails, sales figures, meetings, personnel issues and the host of other things that occupy our mind throughout the day. Instead become singularly focused on this exercise. Let’s brainstorm for a while and identify all of the different risks that we encounter in our business or whatever endeavor in which we are engaged. I know that it may be hard, but it’s very necessary for us to follow through and complete this inventory. We need to turn over every stone even if we believe there’s nothing under some of them. There are competitive risks, operational risks, capital risks and macro risks. It’s important that we not leave a single one off of the matrix.

Once we have determined all of the risks we must then figure out how to mitigate them. This will undoubtedly require some strategic thinking on our part. What will we do if our top salesperson walks out the door? How will we respond if a competitor opens a store right across the street? If raw material prices increase by 20% how will we preserve our margins? Suppose our largest client wants to double the amount of business that it does with us? All of these are risks that need to be addressed. And our cataloging of risks has come about based upon the knowledge and understanding we have gained toiling in the trenches day-in and day-out.

Ultimately our Risk Matrix is populated. Perhaps we’ve flagged 20 different ways our train could derail. And maybe there are 30 different mitigation strategies and tactics that we’ve developed to address those risks. Regardless, we’ve spotted the gaps and done our best to plug them as effectively as possible. But there’s still another step to be taken. Suppose that a few of our mitigation strategies or tactics don’t work as advertised? Maybe one or more of the risks leak through and actually have an adverse impact on our organization. What now? We can solve this by also creating contingency plans for that “just in case” situation where a risk overpowers our mitigation efforts. In other words, what specifically will we do if our mitigation strategy to keep that top salesperson in the fold actually fails because he/she gets eaten by an alligator? Gee, we didn’t think about that!

I was a Boy Scout and everyone knows that our motto is “Be Prepared.” Entrepreneurs need to adopt this motto relative to the risks that we face every day. In doing so, we move from being risk takers to risk managers. As individuals the concept is also just as applicable. What personal risks are we exposed to? We deal with personal risks to the loss of our home, car, health and life through various forms of insurance. Perhaps there are other risks that aren’t insurable in a traditional sense, to which we should give thought.

Here’s the bottom line. We can blithely wander through life oblivious to the alligator lurking around the corner that wants to eat us. Or we can spend a few minutes once in a while and think about what could bite us and what we can do to avoid the unpleasant side effects.

 You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 28 – Blah, Blah, Blah.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

alligator