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Unless You Take Risk You Run the Risk of Being Eliminated

Prior to my career as a futurist I spent eleven years as an employee benefits broker. In the past several years I have watched the majority of my old colleagues move from the “prospector” strategy to the “defender” strategy in response to healthcare reform and a downward economy. The “prospector” strategy embraces risk taking, innovation, and a constant search for new opportunities. The “defender” strategy is risk averse and focused on retaining what you have rather than growth and expansion. This is symptomatic of increased uncertainty about the future. The question that immediately comes to mind is: “Has the future ever been certain?” Of course not. Although our mental model over the past 150 years has convinced us that we can make predictions within a comfortable range of certainty.

As an example, let’s consider the issue of healthcare reform in its current state. I do not wish to debate the pro’s and con’s of healthcare reform, but instead to merely point out the disruption it has created in the industry for insurance companies, individual and employee group members, and brokers in the field. Here’s the problem:

  1. The insurance companies decrease broker/agent commissions. Broker business at its core is 100% commission (minus any additional services or fees).
  2. Insurance premiums continue to rise despite efforts to contain member costs.
  3. Companies can no longer afford to provide decent benefits for their employees.

This results in a vicious cycle where no one wins. Companies cannot afford to buy. Commissions are cut on group and individual plans, meaning brokers have less incentive to sell as market share continues to shrink, yet at the same time they have to significantly increase their client list in order to maintain what they have. The result? Fear. Fear to innovate and go beyond the limits of your industry. In this scenario, veering from the “way we’ve always done things” is too risky. At least that’s what we’ve allowed ourselves to believe, and in so doing we create a “lose – lose” situation.

When individuals, organizations, and governments fail to act because of fear and uncertainty, they unwittingly take the biggest risk of all. The following diagram demonstrates the reinforcing properties in the current system. As the amount of uncertainty increases, the amount of fear increases with it. As the amount of fear increases the amount of risk taken decreases. As the amount of risk taken decreases, the amount of new and innovative solutions decreases. As the amount of new and innovative solutions decreases, the level of uncertainty increases and we’re worse off than we were before.

Does this situation describe your company, industry, or sector? Company strategy that starts with a foundation of fear and excessive risk aversion ultimately ends up replaced, irrelevant, or extinct. In order for your company to thrive in any environment you must take risks. Here are a few key steps to an adaptive and resilient future:

  • Change your perspective and your strategy will follow. It’s not uncommon to mentally “block out” information that appears unrelated or irrelevant to the task at hand. Information overload may cause us to miss unexpected issues or events.
  • Embrace uncertainty and explore undiscovered territory both within and outside your current industry or sector. Your longevity depends on it.
  • Test your assumptions. Bad strategy is all too often rooted in present day constructs that often go unquestioned. Look for bias in all forms. Where are you getting your data and where is the contrasting view point? Asking these questions on the front end will save you tremendous heartache on the backend. Not to mention your strategy will be far more robust.
  • Incorporate risk taking as a primary function of your long-term strategy.

The question you must ask yourself is, “are you a prospector, taking an active role in creating the future, or are you a defender, hunkered down, anxiously awaiting the future?”

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