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3 ways tech leaders can take the right risks


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During my tech career, I’ve learned that fear of failure can hold digital product teams back. Conversely, I’ve seen what can happen when they act boldly. 

I’ve worked on groundbreaking location technology that mapped out emergency room entrances for hospitals across the globe for a customer building automotive navigation systems. I helped the U.S. government aggregate and build the first point addressing system in the U.S., which aided some rescue providers with the individual’s exact location, just in time to aid Hurricane Katrina victims in 2004 in finding safety. When tech leaders, product teams and engineers rise to meet a massive challenge, they not only create a better user experience (UX) but can make lives easier and even save them. 

Yet, many tech companies fail to be great, settling instead for good enough. Why? Because the financial and reputational stakes feel too high; the pressure to deliver a product that works is real. So tech leaders and their product engineering teams too often play it safe: They’re afraid to do otherwise. 

Tech companies must eliminate the fear employees can have when it comes to taking big swings — the fear that making the wrong decision will get you fired. And, this mindset shift has to start with company leadership: in 2021, 43% of American entrepreneurs reported fearing failure, which can create delays in decision-making, hurt product growth, and damper team morale.

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It’s not easy to take big risks, but the path to get there is relatively simple. Tech leaders who adopt three habits can instill the right kind of risk-taking mindset across their teams, improving lives along the way.

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Harness business acumen to balance a bold vision

“Being bold” is most often embraced and taught by leaders who strongly desire to do the right thing. Doing the right thing is often hard, and it takes commitment and the desire to do so. To quote Amelia Earhart: “I want to do it because I want to do it.” 

What’s the most important ingredient for leading boldly? I believe it’s business acumen, which also allows leaders of all types (tech, finance, talent) to get the right things done because they can weigh the impact of a project on humanity versus how much it will cost a business.

How does business acumen help you be bold? I am always calculating the expected ROI, looking at upfront cost, maintenance cost, and value delivered. And sometimes, you have to consider: What is the value of someone’s life saved (as in the case of the ER entrance)? And, if one life is saved every year by adding one feature, it is beyond worth the cost.  

The other way I aim to be bold is by aggressively protecting intellectual property (IP) for my company while moving to a patentable and new-to-world experience.

There are also potential pitfalls to being bold. Tech leaders can lose market share, or they can lose the trust of product teams. Both are very impactful, but I am more often concerned about losing the team’s trust. When you lose trust, team members often lose their motivation and sense of purpose. Trust can be the difference between high-performing and mid-performing teams.

Set audacious goals but evaluate the potential impact

Tech leaders should always remember the that impact their product teams have on the entire company is remarkable. Consider that 66% of tech executives say that product and research and development teams are perceived to be most responsible for digital transformation. Their success is crucial, indeed.

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To me, evaluating impact is critical, and it means coaching teams and sharing market trends and ensuring that they deliver products and features that customers use and love. This is always measured by the adoption rate and net promoter score (NPS) of a product or feature. To bolster those key performance indicators (KPIs), I create ambitious goals, watch for improvements and keep an eye to ensure that we increase our impact. 

Evaluating impact also validates projects. If tech leaders are evaluating the impact of what we produce, then we learn more about our customers or users. If they use and love some of our products to solve a problem, then we can continue to evaluate that problem space scope in their daily life, which is the mental representation of a problem and all the possible paths to solving it. And we can evaluate the persona that loves the entire product.

Inspire confidence by celebrating every step

Because not all risks are worth taking, being able to map out the business value of an initiative inspires confidence across your team because they know the plan is credible and meaningful. A recent study found that unproductive employees are nearly three times more likely to not know their goals. So, tech leaders need to engender confidence and bring clarity, which will help team members lean in, do great work and develop game-changing products. 

To instill confidence, celebrate the teams at all key milestones — even when they fail So much learning can happen through failure. Your team needs to know that learning is the goal — not winning — because there is never an endpoint with new product development. There are always goalposts being moved backward, forward and side to side. A good tactic is to create moments to showcase teams’ work on a cadence. Most teams will run to that cadence so there is something to show.

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Also, ask questions like: “Under what condition can this concept work?” Encourage your team members to seek the answer. As a tech leader, be interested in the outcomes.

In closing, everyone has feared failure and avoided taking chances, but the impact tech leaders can have is when they know which risks to take. For me, after years of being in executive product roles, it’s all about being bold while employing business acumen, consistently evaluating impact and instilling confidence. These three ingredients can build stronger product teams and even save lives.

Sara Rossio is chief product officer at software marketplace G2.

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