Book review: Taking Smart Risks, by Doug Sundheim

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 3:52pm

Taking Smart Risks: How Sharp Leaders Win When Stakes are High

by Doug Sundheim

McGraw-Hill Professional


Stop playing safe. If you want to lead your firm to sustainable success, you must take the right risks, argues consultant Doug Sundheim in his new business guide. "Unfortunately, we rarely hear any warnings about playing it safe," he writes.

The dangers of playing it safe aren't sudden, obvious, and dramatic. "They don't make headlines," Sundheim writes. "They develop slowly over time and are almost impossible to pinpoint. This fact often makes them more dangerous than the high-profile missteps we see and hear about in the news because, like a slow leak in a tyre, you don't see or feel these dangers on a daily basis. You become aware of them only when you realise that you're stuck and you're not really sure how it happened."

So to avoid getting stuck, above all, Sundheim advises, decide what you care about enough to risk time, money and energy to make it happen. Also, among other tactics, strive to see the world through your customers' eyes. Prepare to "fail early, often, and smart", humbly learning from mistakes. When thorny interpersonal problems arise, be bold - have tough conversations. Meantime, identify your "fail points" - areas of possible weakness - in a spirit of "scenario planning".

"The key is to start moving," Sundheim writes, anchoring his argument in the daring success stories of firms including Tata Group, Menasha and Yipit. The fiercely realistic 20th-century Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen makes the cut too, as does the Mojave Desert-based US Army National Training Centre, in a chapter about adapting aggressively to changed demands.

In a stab at making his comfort zone-busting guide more pragmatic, Sundheim - an executive coach and leadership blogger - offers tools, tables and exercises.

Still, you may be left wondering how to gauge which are the right risks to take. Doubtless, you know at least one would-be entrepreneur who flopped, becoming a sad, sour rebuttal to the Mark Twain quote: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do." Not necessarily.

Even so, Sundheim's guide is provocative - it will make you think hard about whether you are getting close to achieving your full promise or stagnating.