Three Types of Risk: Making Decisions in the Face of Uncertainty

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One of the fond memories I have of my first two years at LinkedIn was coming into the office almost every Sunday to spend a couple of hours with Reid Hoffman.

Our conversations covered a wide range of topics, but the time ensured that we were fully aligned on the strategy of the company and the priorities we were pursuing.

One of the topics that I was most fond of discussing was the nature of risk, and how to best lead teams when facing the various types of risk that are commonplace at hypergrowth startups.

Here, Reid never varied, and I quickly adopted his framework as my own. In the end, most of our productive discussion involved deciding which of three types of risk a particular decision involved.

Three Types of Risk

Categorizing the type of risk you face is incredibly useful in helping teams understand how much effort and consideration to spending on making various types of decision in the face of uncertainty.

For hypergrowth startups, risk can be categorized as one of the following types:

  1. Fatal Risk
  2. Painful Risk
  3. Embarrassment Risk

Fatal risks are true bet-the-company issues. They are not that common, but they deserve clarity and focus. If you get the answer wrong here, the company is dead. These risks are unavoidable in early-stage startups, but as companies grow they become more and more uncommon. In fact, most large companies lose the ability or even recognition of these type of risks as they age.

Painful risks involve decisions that have significant repercussions if they go the wrong way. You might miss a key goal, or lose key people. They are recoverable, but there are real ramifications to getting the answer wrong.

Embarrassment risks have no significant impact if they are missed. All that is necessary is to acknowledge the mistake, change course, and move on.

Embarrassment risks are particularly difficult for smart & ambitious people, largely due to insecurity and ego. People want to be perceived as intelligent and successful, and they incorrectly map that to always being correct.

Unfortunately, most people at hypergrowth startups spend far too much time debating embarrassment risk, and they don’t take enough painful risks.

What About Type 1 & Type 2 Decisions?

Jeff Bezos has more recently popularized a different framework, based on two types of decision. This framework is often described in the context of the decision to move forward with Amazon Prime, which at the time was mostly a judgment call versus a data-driven decision.

In his framework:

  • Type 1 decisions are irreversible. Spend time on them.
  • Type 2 decisions are reversible, like walking through a door. Make them quickly and move on.

Overall, this framework is helpful. Thinking through the reversibility of decisions helps prioritize speed vs. perfection. When it comes to execution, the perfect truly can be the enemy of the good enough.

The problem is that almost every decision at a company is reversible, so it tends to not provide that much insight into why some risks feel harder to take than others.

Lessons in Execution

In some ways, you could describe painful risk & embarrassment risk as two sub-categories of Type 2 decisions. The speed of execution depends on taking these type 2 decisions quickly and aggressively, framing them as risk, and clearly articulating what the team will do if it doesn’t play out as expected.

Leaders need to embody this type of decision making, to give permission to newer employees to take risks and communicate their decision making effectively.

Otherwise, a spiral of low expectations and low-risk options will quickly put you in a vice when faced with more aggressive competitors. Worse, you won’t be taking enough shots on goal to learn fast enough to have high odds of success.

Large companies trend towards this problem because decisions become increasingly about the personal positioning of individuals for their own advancement, rather than optimizing for the best results for the company or their customers.

Ironically, taking painful risks may be the only way to set yourself up for exceptional outcomes.

The next time you see your team facing a decision in the face of uncertainty, try to quickly agree on what type of risk you are facing and what type of decision you are making. In most cases, you’ll be able to make decisions more quickly and save your time for the rare, but very real, risks that you have to navigate with your product and your business.