The Danger of Playing it Safe

The most common response in these uncertain economic times is to play it safe, don’t take any risks.

Robert Kreigel Phd Blog

Bob Kreigel AuthorMost companies these days are hunkering to the bunker, cutting back on everything especially those areas that provide growth like sales, marketing, advertising and R&D. In other words they are playing not to lose rather than playing to win.

Sports provide a great visual example of how this strategy actually sabotages success.

An example.

Early last year the US soccer team was playing the heavily favored Mexican team whom they had never beaten. Utilizing and aggressive offensive strategy, they jumped out front, scoring the first goal. And then they did a 180, changing their strategy from offense oriented to playing defense.

In other words they started trying to protect their lead, playing not to lose.

And they did. Mexico won 2-1.

Most of us have experienced this phenomenon.

The golfer worried about missing or over hitting a putt will get too tentative and hit it short.

The tennis player concerned about serving out of the box, bounces it into the net.

In the Inner Skiing programs we ran for five years, many skiers would approach a challenging slope and ski ‘not to fall’.

As a result they would lean back and up the hill, which as any skier knows causes you to do exactly what you were trying to avoid.

I often use games or exercises to show the difference between playing not to lose and playing to win. Below are some typical responses that describe playing ‘not to lose’.

Hesitant, cautious, defensive, tentative, no risk, back on my heals, reactive, anxious, wait for the opponent to move, focused on losing, holding back, tense, boring.

And when I asked what was going on to two HP managers who were just standing there motionless, they responded with a grin; “Hey we’re not losing”.

Some of the responses when translating this not to lose response to the workplace were;

Too many meetings, too few decisions, no action, tell people what they want to hear, sell price rather than value, establish a committee, maintain the status quo, same old same old, maintain old accounts rather than call on new ones, paralysis by analysis, cut everything , send lots of memos, CYA, stick with what you know, don’t try anything new.

Wait and See

A very common ‘not to lose’ strategy is to be reactive, to wait and see what happens rather than to act. Describing this response, best selling author Dan Burris recently wrote in his Techno Trend Blog; that the ‘wait and see’ approach looks like this:
“Should we redo our website? Let’s wait and see what the competition does.”

“Should we expand in a new market? Let’s wait and see what the economy does.”

“Should we invest in this new technology? Lets wait and see if it catches on first.”

Burris continues “Wait and see certainly seems less risky than sticking out your neck, Right? Wrong.

These days a wait and see strategy carries more risk than the action is postpones.”

I heard an executive from Ford Motors say that they had always considered themselves rapid responders but only afterwards realized that this strategy meant that they were too slow.

Consider these other casualties who waited too long and got leapfrogged; Motorola and Polaroid with the shift from analog to digital. Kodak with the shift from film to digital. Blockbuster with the move to online video. Blackberry with the shift to larger screen technology. HP with the digital pad.

In the music and entertainment business, many record labels with the leap to MP3 and streaming video.

And these are just a few.

Playing to Win

After playing not to lose I have a group shift to a playing to win strategy.

The first thing that I always notice is a great increase in the noise, fun, and energy level of the group. Some of the words that are typically used to describe this strategy are;

Offense, innovative, attack, take risks, try new things, focused on winning not losing, proactive, initiate rather than respond, high energy, exciting, more motivated.

Playing this game quickly reveals that playing not to lose is a no win game.

When you play it safe you don’t take the risks , innovate, or utilize the available skills, strengths and strategies necessary to win. Worried about losing, failing, erring or looking bad creates tension, stress, and worry. As a result people hold back and become overly cautious which prevents maximum performance.

Tony La Russa, the now legendary baseball manager of the world champion St Louis Cardinals knows what it takes to win. His teams have won three World Series titles. He is second in the history of baseball in playoff victories and third in most wins.

La Russa advises,’ ‘Don’t manage to save your job. (Not to lose it). Manage to win’. And if you watch his teams, they are always taking risks and challenging the conventional wisdom. He often has his pitcher batting eighth rather than ninth as all other teams do. He will often have hit hitters hit away in a bunting situation, and might change a pitcher after one pitch.

‘If you’re managing to protect your job or your lead, you’ll never win’, said La Russa

Below are some recent examples of play to win strategies that companies in high pressure, rapid changing environments have used.

IBM; – Faced with the worse recession since the depression, instead of hunkering down and pulling back like many of its peers, CEO Sam Palmisano green lighted several major projects that helped IBM earn $14.8billion in ’10 with a 46.1 gross profit.

Cirque de Soleil; When their show, which was initially made up of a bunch up of street artists, was finally becoming profitable, founder Guy Laliberte, who had been a fire eater himself, felt it would be wise to use the profits to invest in a new show and have two or more touring productions. But he encountered great resistance from those who didn’t want to risk what they had. Overcoming their objections, Laliberte took the risk and used the money to develop other shows.

Today income is close to $1billion.

Chevron; Faced with a slowing economy, flat industry sales plus pricing and competitive pressures, Chevron is investing billions in a plant that will make their finished lubricants division the largest supplier of base oil in the world.

Summing up the advantages of a play to win strategy, a CEO of a major retailer told me that; ‘everyone in our industry is cutting back- inventory, advertising, promotions, staff, everything. But I’m cutting forward….

…..I’m increasing our ad budget being more aggressive with our promotions and investing in new inventory. Sure I know there’s less business around, but by adding not subtracting and being more, rather than less, aggressive I’m going to increase my share of market. And then when the market comes back, I’ll be sitting in the catbird seat with a major share of a growing market’.

An executive at Apple, probably the most innovative company on the planet said; ‘We don’t wait for opportunities, we create them.

If you wait, you’re too late.’

Playing it safe is like body surfing in two feet of water. You may not drown but you’re also not in deep enough to catch any but the most meager of waves.

Everybody plays not lose someplace. Or to put it more positively, we all could be playing to win in some areas where we currently aren’t. To be successful, especially in these challenging times, you need to be able to recognize your own blind spots, the places where you are holding your self and your organization back. But playing not to lose is insidious, often so deeply ingrained that many of us do it automatically. When faced with what seems to be an imposing challenge or a tough situation, the knee jerk response is to play it safe.

Becoming aware of these blind spots, old habits, and panic buttons that sabotage our growth and learning is the first step to breaking the pattern and avoiding getting tripped up by them in the future. Just as when you’re travelling, if you are aware of the roadblocks, obstacles and detours that could surprise you, slow you down or stop you in your tracks, you can change your route and avoid them completely.

But this response is often very subtle. Recently my son, Otis, told me that he thought my website sucked (sorry that was his word).

I immediately got into my defensive mode with panoply of reasons why to not do anything; it was too expensive to redesign my site, most of my business came from agents not my webpage, and that my business was doing ok even in these tough times. (Sound familiar? One hint—being defensive is often an indication of playing not to lose)

After hearing my response Otis replied”; Hey pop, that sounds an awful lot like that ‘not to lose’ strategy you talk about.” (Yeah I have my blind spots as well as everyone else.) Recognizing the truth of his response, I invested in redesigning my website. And in four months the revenue from my website was already three times the cost of the redesign.

So I leave you with the question, in what area of your life could you be playing to win where you are now playing not to lose. In this uncertain, laser fast environment, playing it safe is dangerous and will sabotage your growth, success and enjoyment.

Overcoming this obstacle will get you to the next level whether it is in your work your sport or your life.

And it’ll make whatever you are doing far more enjoyable.

The most common response in these uncertain economic times is to play it safe, don’t take any risks.


via Sales Drive

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