The art and science of management is much about coping with risk. There are few certain outcomes in business, and that’s particularly true when we factor in the reality that people are darned complex and don’t always act rationally.

More often than not, I see managers and leaders looking at their world through the eyes of “what can go wrong?” and basing their decisions solely on attempting to minimize those identified adverse outcomes. I also see a great number of aberrant behaviors impacting the decision-making processes and risk-taking actions of managers and organizations.

4 Bad Habits that Stifle Experimentation:

1. Fear of being wrong rules the day. In particular, early career leaders lacking the benefit of experience and often left to sink or swim on their own, act conservatively out of fear of making mistakes. While they may be anxious to experiment with people, teams and programs, they often lack a framework for understanding what is acceptable or unacceptable.

2. Managers and leaders struggle to interpret what “new” means and the knee-jerk reaction is to avoid “new” until it’s better understood. Social Media is a prime example of this, as many firms opt to create punitive and restrictive policies versus challenging their employees to find ways to leverage the tools. It wasn’t so long ago that the web was the “new” and many firms carried the same “wait and see” attitude and failed to leverage new and powerful capabilities to improve their businesses and gain an advantage.

3. Risk is managed to perceived political tolerance levels. Politically motivated managers and leaders focus on identifying decisions that fit within the tolerance zone of their superiors. Experimentation is reduced to subjective and politically motivated thought-processes.

4. Fear rules the day. In toxic environments, people strive and struggle to avoid making decisions out of fear of gaining the wrath of someone with a vested stake in his/her people not making decisions. Experimentation in this case is non-existent.

5 Ideas for Leaders to Help Experimentation Flourish:

1. Define, communicate and reinforce risk tolerance levels in all aspects of your business. As a senior leader, you owe this critical context to your team members. If you’re encouraging experimentation and innovation, then you need to create the processes and systems to reasonably evaluate opportunities AND risks and help the team understand choices that are acceptable.  It’s common for me to see firms where there is no context for risk, yet ample lip service for innovation. The lack of context slows or stifles any true experimentation in some cases and simply confuses the situation in others.

2. Cultivate a “what does this mean for us?” opportunity and risk assessment type of thinking with your team members. Teach and encourage big-picture, competitive, customer and other industry scanning habits and challenge people to end all discussions with their own translation of what the opportunity might mean positively or negatively for your firm. Of course, the next discussion is, “What do you suggest that we do?”

3. Build experimentation into professional development plans. A key part of everyone’s development is their ability to cope with increasingly ambiguous circumstances. Move beyond encouraging people to experiment to making it a part of what gets done and what gets measured, and you are actively supporting personal professional development. Of course, ultimately, experimentation needs to provide meaningful outcomes, with a blend of lessons learned through failures and gains from successes.

4. Remember to help your team members cut through the very-real political fog and fud. They don’t have the political capital that you do and it is your job to help them gain it, while knocking down obstacles and cutting through aberrant organizational behaviors.

5. Extend experimentation beyond programs and processes to management tasks, including team development, decision-making processes, developmental activities, job definitions and so forth. We cannot keep solving the increasingly complex problems of our world with yesterday’s management approaches.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

A healthy workplace is one where people are comfortable being uncomfortable, as long as the discomfort is not politically motivated or driven by fear of repercussions. Healthy discomfort comes from pushing the envelope on new approaches, while managing and monitoring risks and learning in the process.  I would much rather have a team of professionals pushing me as the leader to take chances for the right reasons than a team of professionals hiding in their cubicles hoping not to draw my gaze.