blog header image

The Courage to Achieve Greatness


January 6, 2015

Recently I attended an NJTC (New Jersey Technology Council) workshop on Agile development where the speaker (Bruce Kratz) made a comparison between the Apollo Moon Mission and Agile methodology. It was inspiring. It got me thinking about the philosophy behind the Agile methodology and how it extends into doing great innovative work in general…

On May 25th, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. Knowing the risk and difficulty of the task, he did so to unite a nation politically and philosophically behind a common goal great enough to inspire unity of purpose and pride in all who took up the endeavor.

And, he did so because he knew that the accomplishment would have a substantial and lasting benefit for our country. Isn’t that what we should aspire to do on any project? – Inspire great work to create a substantial and lasting benefit. It starts with ensuring that the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal from Agile development) is ambitious enough to inspire a unity of purpose and demand greatness.

However, the idea or goal alone is not enough. One needs to find the courage, resolve and leadership to make it happen. One needs to accept and embrace the risk. Which brings me finally to my key point – When did risk become a bad thing? What noteworthy achievement has ever been accomplished without it? What has ever thrilled you that wasn’t somewhat risky?

While I’m not advocating here that one take risks purely for the thrill of it alone, I’ve learned over the years that the more cautious and conservative a project is, the less likely it is to have a dramatic impact. Thus, by eliminating risk one only ensures mediocrity. Risk is not an element to be removed from the equation, it is one to be cultivated and managed well. It is, in fact, the secret sauce to successful innovation.

When striving to rise above the ordinary and make a dramatic impact, ask these questions of your potential project:

Does its scare me at least a little?
If not, you’re probably not being ambitious enough. Any project that doesn’t give one cause for concern probably isn’t going to amount to much in the first place. Ask yourself what you could achieve if you accepted more risk.

What will be gained by trying, even if I do not succeed?
There is no failure, if you learn something meaningful from the process. Edison “failed” something like 10,000 times before succeeding with the lightbulb. Should he have stopped somewhere along the way or was his idea bright enough to warrant the risk? See my next point.

How bright is the halo effect of success?
The greatest innovations not only disrupt their industry, but shine their light on others as well. The greater the expected affect the more risk you can afford to take.

Will the right stakeholders benefit most from this effort?
Asking “Who will benefit most directly?” helps to validate the idea and rally for support. If you find yourself in a place where you can’t decide because most of key stake holders will benefit in different ways, you’re on the right path.

What are the lasting effects?
Ask yourself if this idea is a flash in the pan or if it will likely have a lasting positive effect. Again, the longer lasting, the more risk you can afford to take.

Does my process give me the means to manage the risk I will accept?
Accepting risk doesn’t mean being controlled by it. Your process needs to be flexible enough that it allows you to quickly pivot around obstacles when things don’t work out as planned. Think in terms of the end goal without being set on a single way to achieve it. If necessity is the mother of invention, her father is most certainly experimentation – No invention is born without both.

Look at digital agency sites and you’ll find some exciting marketing spiel on most about innovation or creating dramatic results or disrupting the marketplace, but little substance on what it takes to achieve this. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are not good or successful at innovating, but what it does mean is that they are not brave enough to talk about the risk.

Philosophically they look at risk and believe clients look at risk in a negative light. It’s time we all start seeing risk for what it is, opportunity and gain the courage to do great things.