How to Create a Culture that Embraces Risk and Turns Mistakes into Opportunities

October 7, 2021
The Culture Equation
How to Create a Culture that Embraces Risk and Turns Mistakes into Opportunities

“A failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” Elon Musk.

 And look at how far Tesla has come.

It’s no secret that innovation drives success. Competition is everywhere around us, so startups that can come up with new and disruptive products, can create sustainable and significant growth. However, finding a true niche that fills a gap in the market is much easier said than done.

To create and implement new ideas, your people can’t be held back by rules, policies and behaviours that kill the appetite to innovate and take risks. Instead, your culture has to be aligned and prepared to embrace risks. 

But in many cases, that’s not enough. A culture that embraces risks is as good as the outcomes of these risks. What if they don’t work out? A thriving workplace culture is one that embraces new ideas and change, but is also strong and agile enough to turn around a downside to an upside.

In this read, we discuss how to develop a culture that embraces measured risk, puts creativity first and makes the most of its mistakes.

The Importance of Embracing Risk At Work

Think of some of the most successful startups out there. Many of them, including international powerhouses like Netflix, thought about services that people need and upturned how consumers access them. In other words, they found a chink in the armour of existing industry sectors and filled a gap no one else had thought to fill.

From delivering DVDs, to streaming content and creating content, there were a lot of risks involved in their journey simply because sometimes, there is no way of knowing whether the new business model is going to work. There’s no precedent for how audiences will react. But, if you’re willing to take a chance on different, untested ideas, the payoff can be enormous. Netflix, for example, recorded revenue of around $25bn in 2020 and the service just keeps on growing.

But with risk-taking, you need a culture that embraces it. Netflix is known to have its unique culture which may or may not be for everyone but it works. For example, they have this thing they call “sunshining,” which encourages employees to share a mistake they have made with colleagues thereby promoting transparency. And as reported, Netflix has been reported to be quite open about its culture of “no rules”.

How to Encourage Risk Taking At Work

Thinking outside the box and embracing new ideas at work has to start with the leadership team. If the people at the top of a business are risk-averse, then that attitude will inevitably trickle down to less senior employees. Remember that there are different types of work culture, including those that foster fear or apathy. To ensure your workers become successful risk-takers instead, follow these three steps.

1. Relinquish Control

It may sound counterintuitive, but to get the best out of your people, you have to loosen the reins. This doesn’t entail stepping back entirely as a leader. In fact, your employees will need you as much as ever in a risk-taking office environment. Rather, it entails creating space for free thinking and individuality.

You’ve probably heard the saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That is certainly true in a startup environment. So, create a culture that allows your employees to throw the old rules aside and try new things. In other words, give them permission to push the boat out. When you do, you’ll likely find that they’re willing to work harder, smarter, and find that golden product or feature that will take your business to the next level.

2. Create Context

Of course, handing your employees more control has the potential to be a slippery slope. So, it’s important to create a context to guide their work. In the case of Canva co-founder Melanie Perkins, her startup’s context was all about “[solving] customer’s problems” and making sure the customer was representative of a large market. To put it another way, she built her new business idea with a specific goal in mind.

Crucially, though, Melanie’s idea was all about doing things differently. The work culture, then, was geared towards taking a risk that had been thought through. That’s one of the reasons why Canva, a startup with a relatively simple premise, has been such a huge hit. It was an original idea that was developed through rigorous context setting, a clear why “Be a force for Good” followed by clear ‘rules’ or values on how they operate.

3. Make Mistakes Matter

It might be a cliche to say that “everybody makes mistakes” but that doesn’t make it any less true. Everyone is fallible, whether they work in an entry-level position or as a high-powered executive. What stops those mistakes from becoming failures is how a business reacts to them. Embracing mistakes is, therefore, essential.

There is a lot you can learn from any outcome, even a negative one. So, take those new insights and apply them to future approaches or strategies. Get curious about why things don’t work, what could have gone wrong, and what that says about your business. And, crucially, involve the person who made the mistake so that they can learn, too.

Turning Mistakes Into Opportunities

Plenty of now-successful startup CEOs made mistakes early on in their journeys. Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, attempted to start a LinkedIn-esque site five years too early and with a far less defined model. While the platform crashed and burned, it taught him the importance of focusing on one domain.

Just like Reid, you mustn’t let mistakes grind your plans to a halt. Instead, leverage those mistakes. Do so by interrogating them, interacting with them, and finding a way to turn them into opportunities. LinkedIn today has over 774 million members and whilst there are many reasons behind this success story, it all started with turning mistakes into opportunities, just like Reid Hoffman did.

With that said, let’s look at five key steps to make the most out of mistakes whilst building a thriving workplace culture.

1. Acceptance

Accepting people when they take risks is key. When we respond to them in a negative way, we negatively reinforce risk-taking in our culture. We send a message that we don’t really value risk-taking. Your people need to know that there won’t be backlashes to mistakes made with good intentions. Only by allowing and accepting mistakes can you and your team begin the process of learning from mistakes.

2. Retrospection

As mentioned earlier, it’s important to dig deeper into mistakes. It’s not an easy process, particularly for those who were involved. It is, however, essential. So, collectively and objectively, everyone involved will need to address the situation. Ask your people for feedback and their thoughts on why they believe their idea underperformed and write their thoughts down. Then, bulk out what they say with strategic insights and statistics. This will make it far easier for each person to contextualise and evaluate what happened.

3. Forward-Thinking

When something goes awry, it’s normal to dwell on it. But doing so is unproductive. Instead, you and your people must adopt a more forward-thinking approach. By looking ahead, you can begin to plot a pathway to achieve the new desired outcomes based on the lessons from the endeavours you’ve taken on. As a leader it is up to you to make sure you bake in the new agreed steps or actions into your ways of working

4. Collaboration

When things go south, one of the best things to do is to bring everyone together and closer. This is the time where being united and aligned is more important than ever. Collaboration breeds success.

Salesforce found that 86% of executives believe poor collaboration to be a major cause of business failure.

5. Planning

Once you’ve recovered from the initial shock of an unexpected hitch, it’s time to regroup. You’ll need to develop a plan that prevents that same mistake from happening again. However, keep those same risk-taking principles in mind. While a risky endeavour might have led you to a low point, another might just catapult you to success.

So, rather than introducing strict measures and policies to prevent future mistakes, consider how you can use storytelling to communicate the learnings from those past mistakes to enable your teams’ future initiatives. You want to ensure your culture continues to allow and promote measured risks. It’s as important now as it was before to allow your people to think big.