There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.

– William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

The Bard apparently understood the nature of opportunity. It can be a fleeting thing, requiring an intuitive judgement about whether to grab it, or let it go. It usually doesn’t wait around for a detailed cost/benefit analysis – it needs an answer today. Acting on an opportunity is a decision that must often be taken courageously without full knowledge of all the facts, and no guarantee of the outcome.

Unfortunately, there is a recent and growing emphasis in all fields of human endeavour on risk avoidance. Yes, reducing risk through the elimination of dangerous situations can save lives. Who would argue against that? But the reduction of organizational risk, a different kind of risk management, often means reducing the ability of individuals to make decisions.

I encountered a rather unsettling example recently when a client explained to me that it was impossible to obtain approval on design concepts submitted. Not because there was something wrong with them, but because there was no mechanism within their organization to make this kind of decision. No person or committee within the organization was empowered to categorically approve anything. The closest they could approach the act of approval was a committee endorsement, and that only once it had ascended to the highest peak of the corporate pyramid.

It is hard to imagine an opportunity ever being grasped in such an environment, but perhaps it has been ever thus for large organizations. What concerns me most is what happens to the mindset of the employees under such a regime. They’re being trained to defer to the judgement of others, to second-guess everything, and most importantly to avoid making decisions at all costs. And to avoid opportunity.

image by Flickr user @Doug88888