Use Active Learning to Manage Risk

Softonic, the company I lead, will be 20 this year. When I joined, it had a culture that had grown to avoid risk. Around 2013 and 2014, we went through a bit of a crisis, and one of the side effects was that most employees then wanted safety and security more than anything.

Unfortunately, you can’t grow a company when the culture is to avoid risk.

My mantra became:

We are going to fail in many ways,
but we will learn from every failure… and not repeat it.

In other words, I wanted us to become a learning organization.

We now test many paths, and continue to follow the ones that prove to hold the greatest promise. Do tests involve risk? Yes, a bit. But these risks are manageable, especially if the results make us smarter.

Without an explicit mandate to learn, it is nearly impossible to balance risk vs. reward.

If you merely encourage employees to accept more risk, one of two bad things can happen:

1.) They take far too much risk, and for unclear reasons.
2.) They take too little risk, and with little or no benefits.

Learning introduces a third option besides risk and reward: knowledge. A best practice here is to always follow failures by learning. If you fail to hit a revenue goal, it’s insufficient to accept the failure. Figure out why you failed, then leverage those insights.

A big part of this has to do with connecting autonomy and responsibility. It’s in any organization’s interest to give talented employees room to demonstrate initiative and do their best work. But a precondition of autonomy must be responsibility, which means accountability.

So if you fail, you admit it, deal with the consequences, and capture the learning. By doing this, you — and your organization — become smarter.

I want employees who take chances, accept responsibility, and never stop learning.

It’s my nature to learn. I always seek to understand why something worked, or why it didn’t. Cursory analysis has never been enough. For example, I want to know exactly why revenue was up. Even with good news, it pays to be curious.

This sort of curiosity feeds a culture of constantly understanding new approaches, even when they are not immediately actionable. It leads to a greater set of tactics and strategies that you can use moving forward.

You can’t eliminate risk from the world, but learning is a sound way to transform future risk into significant rewards.

Scott Arpajian is CEO of Softonic, one of the world’s top 50 web sites.

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