Playing It Safe Is Riskier than You Think
By William C. Taylor
William C. Taylor is the founding editor of Fast Company and the bestselling author of Practically Radical.
My magazine, Fast Company, will celebrate its twentieth anniversary this October, so I’ve been reflecting on the early days. As it turns out, one of the very first articles in our very first issue was a smart and entertaining list compiled by E.F. Borisch, product manager at a long-established manufacturer called Milwaukee Gear Company. Borisch’s article was titled, “50 Reasons Why We Cannot Change,” and it offered a collection of objections to and worries about the hard work of making progress. Reason #1: “We’ve never done it before.” Reason #4: “We tried it before.” Reason #13: “Our competitors are not doing it.” Reason #17: “Sales says it can’t be done.” Reason #18: “The service department won’t like it.”
Now here’s the punch line: E.F. Borisch compiled his list back in 1959, and published it in a magazine called Product Engineering. What we found so amazing about the list when we reprinted it in 1993—and what remains just as amazing twenty years later—is that most leaders in most companies face precisely the same set of worries and pushbacks today. The more things change, it seems, the more the objections to change remain the same.
That’s why the first job of leadership is to identify and overcome the costs of complacency. To persuade colleagues at every level that there are genuine risks for the failure to take risks—that the only thing they have to fear, is the fear of change itself.
I don’t mean to minimize the challenges, pressures, and potential setbacks that are a necessary part of making real change. But is there any doubt that far too many companies are far better at reassuring themselves about the virtues of standing pat than they are at rallying around the benefits of standing out? As Michelangelo famously said, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”