Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Risk Trap

One of the key principles we're stressing in the Economic Dimension of the Ecovillage Design Education course (being taught in Albuquerque Feb 9-17) is operating from a place of abundance rather than scarcity. There's a lot that the current dominant economic model does to reinforce scarcity (such as creating debt at a faster rate than the money needed to repay it). On top of that, there's greater power to manifest things in the world when you believe they're possible. This is not magical thinking; it's the power of positivism (which doesn't guarantee success; it just gives it a greater chance).

As good as this this adivce is, there's a trap lurking underneath, and that's what I want to explore today.

One of the most interesting features of the 9-day course on the Economic Dimension is that a good fraction of the class time (about 7 hours out of 40 total) is given over to what we style "Design Studio," where the participants have sorted themselves into five groups (of 3-8 students each) that tackle a particular project. They have been asked to figure out how to develop the project in a sustainable way, with an emphasis on applying the new paradigm economic principles we're offering in the course. There's nothing like test driving the theory to help integrate the learning.

One of the smaller groups is focused on developing a local business that features two products—smoothies and LED lighting systems. While the combination is a bit bizarre (I had to ask twice to make sure I'd heard correctly), this is an actual business start-up, not a role play about an imaginary business. The thing that these two products have in common is that the two principals, Jesse and Mike, believe they have two high-quality products, and they are totally excited to be producing them and delivering them by bike in the Albuquerque neighborhood where they live. The dream is that this will be a local business with products that can bought and delivered with minimal carbon impact. It's a cool idea.

While Jesse and Mike agree on all of the above, they are now in a crisis over how quickly to develop the business. Mike wants to proceed cautiously, and not commit to marketing until they have their delivery bike assembled, their marketing materials crafted, and their supply chain for the LED products secured. Jesse is looking at a World Wellness Weekend (subtitled a Health, Wellness, and Sustainability Living Festival) happening March 8-9 in downtown Albuquerque March 8 that will feature Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson. He sees this is a special opportunity to jump start their business, getting their twin products in front of hundreds (if not thousands) of their target audience all in one go. Jesse is jazzed and Mike is freaked out (afraid that the fledgling company will blow the lion's share of its start-up capital overreaching itself in one big roll of the dice.

Both agree that the right people are likely to be in the room. The tension, essentially, is around risk tolerance. It is an interesting example because neither Mike nor Jesse is weird or off-base. Their thinking may or may not be good, but their general attitudes toward their business venture both fit comfortably within the range of normal—just at opposite ends of the spectrum. What is prudent to Mike is fear-bound to Jesse. What is bold to Jesse is reckless to Mike.

The opportunity of the Wellness Weekend had brought them face-to-face with a dynamic that they will have to solve if their partnership is going to succeed. That is, in order to continue together in a vibrant business (which was the idea all along), they'll have to acknowledge that they have very different degrees of risk tolerance and be able to consistently affirm the impact of their ideas on the other with respect to risk.

Thus, when Jesse gets excited about the next chance for taking the business forward in a leap, he should anticipate that this will push Mike's buttons about being out of control. Note that I'm not saying Jesse is right or wrong; I'm only saying he needs to start the conversation by acknowledging that Mike is likely to feel threatened by Jesse's new venture. If Mike feels accurately seen, the conversation will go much better.

Going the other way, when Mike proposes a plan that is more deliberate and careful, he needs to anticipate that Jesse may respond with impatience. Jesse may feel hemmed in or shackled by
what he perceives as steps too small. Jesse needs to soar and Mike needs to show that he understands that.

Really, it's a diversity issue and this is an excellent example of the challenges of how to navigate it without asking either party to capitulate or change personalities.

One more point (and the main reason I'm writing this essay). In the context of our training, there might be a tendency to empathize more with Jesse in this dynamic. After all, isn't he the one embodying the principles of abundance and positivity? Isn't Mike exemplifying scarcity and fear-based thinking? Here's the trap.

While we are indeed advocating that people make a conscious shift in the direction of abundance and positivity, everyone has their own journey and can only go at their own pace. Mike is moving toward abundance and positivity (he's starting a new business after all, and risking thousands of dollars in the attempt)—he just didn't start in the same place that Jesse did, and may not be going at the same pace.

Chiding him (or worse, judging him) for not being in the same place as Jesse will not help Mike. He needs to be supported where he is (just like everyone else) and celebrated for the movement he's making—rather than goosed for not keeping up with Jesse, the soaring eagle.

Looking at this the other way, just because Jesse embodies abundance and a positive attitude—which he does—does not mean that all his ideas are good. While they may all be well-intended, that doesn't mean his ideas should be exempted from careful examination. Boldness can be reckless. In many ways, the art of succeeding in business is discerning the difference before you irrevocably commit your resources.

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