Plan The Risks You Take

by Ian Dapot

Taking risks and experimenting are essential parts of a vibrant design practice and are important behaviors to nurture in creative cultures. Recognizing the difference in the definitions between risk taking and experimentation is equally critical in determining how to identify opportunities, evaluate outcomes, plan next steps, and stay out of trouble.

Risks involve an element of the unknown, and can turn out well or badly depending on the specific context. The results of risk taking are often unrepeatable, because it isn’t clear what decision or changes in circumstance lead to success or failure. An experiment involves changing a controlled number of elements to test a hypothesis, you know what you’re changing and what you hope to accomplish by doing so. Ideally you prove your hypothesis, but disproving it is equally valuable in terms of knowledge and understanding because you should be able to identify the variable that changed and have a sense of what happened as a result. Despite the challenges that risks represent in determining why they pay off and why they fail, they play an important part in creative growth and development, and it’s a basic assumption that relevant design should involve experimentation.

There is no shortage of situations that can benefit from changing behaviors, including seeking new and different work, reviving a struggling project, or collaborating with new team members. The challenge of experimenting as a designer is in finding ways to use the propensity for taking chances natural to designers to the advantage of projects and our clients. So how should we evaluate the right time for risks and experiments and set ourselves up for success?

Set expectations with collaborators about whether individual projects or specific decisions represent a risk or an experiment, create agreement about which activity you’re engaging in and set realistic expectations about unknowns. Transparency about the awareness of risk and your intentions can help build confidence in your direction and give clients the chance to provide feedback before launching into new space (hopefully a solid “go for it”).

If you’re considering designs for alternatives to something familiar or trying to create something new to the world, it might help to frame risks and experiments as questions, “what would happen if…” and allow your collaborators to add their expertise and experience to the decision. They may be able to share relevant details from past work that answer some of the unknowns, and point to examples or experts that might help. If you’re designing within a more determined set of boundaries try presenting formal risks as tactical options among a portfolio that reflect your grasp of the project brief, and cast the more adventuresome directions as an effort to push understood boundaries.

Keep in mind the phrase “managing risk” has at least two possible interpretations, first that risk is something to be avoided and “managed” away, second that risk taking and experimentation is something to be nurtured and managed to it’s best effect.

There is a line between taking risk and experimenting.
There is a line between taking risk and experimenting. Risk is unknown, and can turn out well or badly, but either way the results can’t be repeated. In an experiment, you control known variables and study the results. Whether it worked in your favor or not, you know which element was manipulated and how it effected your results. This can help lead to understanding what was successful and unsuccessful when applied to future projects.

Dig Deeper!
1. Read this Q&A with Amy C. Edmondson on the trade offs between learning and performance for Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge.

2. Marcia Conner writes on the steps to “Create a Learning Culture” for Fast Company.