In every culture for as long as humans have existed, bravery has been a valued characteristic. The person who doesn't count the cost of their actions, believing only in their possible positive consequences (let's call her Sarah), is lauded as a great example of a human being, whereas the one who holds back, aware of the risk and fearful as a result, is seen as less worthy of praise.

But what if Sarah isn't brave but ignorant instead?

Nelson Mandela doesn't think that bravery is determined by an action, but rather by an aversion to the risk and an overcoming of that fear:

The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

The world of business today demands bravery

Nowadays, we have opportunities to disrupt the market through doing something new and different. But any time we do something new and different, there's a chance - sometimes unlikely, sometimes very likely, often entirely unknown - that it will be a fruitless endeavour and we may even end up looking a bit silly.

Google seems particularly good at launching products that fail and make them look a bit silly. Who remembers:

  • Bufferbox
  • Bump
  • Buzz
  • Currents
  • Flock
  • Glass
  • Helpouts
  • Moderator
  • Notebook
  • Reader
  • Schemer
  • Wave

Google has failed, failed, failed, failed, failed and failed. And failed. And they're still trying out new silly ideas like human-less high street shops, autonomous cars, machine assistants that genuinely sound human and an app to find your face in historic paintings.

I heard Astro Teller, Google's "Captain of Moonshots", recently deliver a presentation. His opening exercise was a challenging one. He asked the audience: If I gave every person in your team the chance to either make a guaranteed $1million today, or a 1 in 100 chance to make $1billion, which would you want them to take?"

Of course, every hand went up at the second choice. He congratulated the audience for passing the maths test.

Then he asked which choice their boss would want them to make.

Every hand this time answered the other way.

Why?

Bravery.

Organisations tend to have lots of policies, procedures, tools and governance forums focussed on not taking too much risk, and that's important.

But it doesn't instil an innovation mindset. When people feel like something could go wrong, they're conditioned to avoid it, remove it or at least minimise it. Our businesses set our employees up to protect the status quo, and in so doing remove the chance for bravery and for innovation.

It's about more than investing in R&D, although that's important. It's about supporting people in trying out new ideas in a safe space where the consequences are minimal. At times that will make them look silly. At times things will go wrong. At times the ideas will simply be bad.

And for the sake of that 1 in 100, $1billion reward, it's surely worth it.

(I found an interview with Astro Teller describing his persentations in his own words here so please do check that out)