Get your fouls!
One of my first rules of hiring is that you should always try to hire someone smarter than yourself -- so you can learn as much as possible. I have been very fortunate to work with some wonderful people over the years. My friend Van Morris (who we hired to become CEO of Infonautics) taught me a wonderful lesson about risk taking. It's about getting your fouls.
If Alan Iverson fouled out in the first ten minutes of an NBA basketball game, you can be sure that his coach would immediately talk to him because he was playing too aggressively...and "urge" him to play it a little safer. However, if Iverson played several games without getting any fouls, Van believed that a good coach should also talk to him -- because he was playing too safe...and "urge" him to take more chances and be more aggressive.
Basketball players get the opportunity to commit five fouls before they are removed from the game. Why doesn't that apply to business as well? We've all seen managers push employees to eliminate risk. (It's the old "no one ever got fired for buying IBM" thing). Companies reward safe behavior. When was the last time you saw a manager push an employee to take a risk, no matter how well thought out? When was the last time you saw a manager congratulate someone for taking a calculated chance that resulted in failure?
Van believed that a good leader encourages people to get their fouls. If you want to build a team that thinks creatively, acts aggressively and takes initiative, then you have to reward intelligent risks. Even if they fail. In fact, I think a great leader needs to congratulate someone for failing spectacularly. Think about it. A company's risk-tolerance level is set by a leader's reaction to failure. If someone takes an intelligent risk and fails -- and suffers negative personal consequences (termination, demotion, or is seen as falling out of favor) -- that sends a very clear message to the entire organization. However, if that same person is congratulated for taking the risk, asked to evaluate why it failed and suffers no adverse consequences, that also sends a very clear message.
I'm not advocating taking all risks -- just intelligent, well calculated chances. At Half.com, my marketing team came up with a number of outside of the box ways to generate attention. They did it because they knew that they had the ability to get a few fouls without fouling out of the game.
They convinced the town of Halfway Oregon to rename itself to Half.com Oregon, landing us over $5M worth of free media coverage -- including a live product launch on the Today Show.
They convinced the largest manufacture of fortune cookies
to put a a coupon (that said "Save A Fortune at Half.com") on the back of
millions of fortune cookies a day -- distributed in 25% of US Chinese
restaurants -- for free.
They even had custom "urinal screens" printed that said "Don't Piss Away All Your Money - Shop at Half.com" and hired interns to put them into the urinals at Penn Station, Airports, Hotels, etc. (You should've seen the faces of the Wharton marketing interns who were hired to do some "hands on viral marketing").
Now, most people (including myself) would consider the Urinal Screen to be a "foul" - (especially when I had to explain what a Urinal Screen was to Meg Whitman)...But if I punished the team for taking the risk, would they have come up with the other brilliant marketing ideas? Or would they have suggested that we buy some banner ads to market ourselves?
I'd rather have a team that thinks innovatively, acts aggresively and takes intelligent risks to gets their fouls than a team that actively works to avoid them. Would you? Is your organization's culture optimized to maximize creativity - or minimize mistakes?
If you're looking for outside-the box marketing ideas like we used at Half.com, I'd highly recommend Mark Hughes (the former VP of Marketing at Half.com) and his agency BuzzMarketing - or at least read his book...
(NOTE - I'm a minority equity-holder in BuzzMarketing...)