With Regret

By Melanie Lockwood Herman

“Human beings are impressive creatures. We can fly planes, compose operas, and bake scones. But we generally stink at divining what other people think and anticipating how they will behave. Worse, we don’t realize how inept we are at these skills.” – Daniel Pink, The Power of Regret

If you’re a risk leader who has adopted a ‘no regrets’ mantra for your life or life’s work, you might regret buying Daniel Pink’s new book, The Power of Regret. But if you’re a risk leader who relishes the contrary view, the unworn path, or simply changing your mind after acquiring new insights, The Power of Regret might lead you to think more deeply about regret’s role in life and risk practice.

Be Bold or Go Home

One of the themes that resonated deeply with me was Pink’s exploration of “boldness regrets,” which he describes as one of the four major categories of meaningful regrets. According to Pink, boldness regrets result when we choose to play it safe, adding that “Boldness regrets sound like this: If only I’d taken that risk.”

He explains:

“A stable platform for our lives is necessary, but not sufficient. One of the most robust findings in the academic research and my own, is that over time we are much more likely to regret the chances we didn’t take than the chances we did. Again, the surface domain—whether the risk involved our education, our work, or our love lives—doesn’t matter much. What haunts us is the inaction itself. Foregone opportunities to leave our hometown or launch a business or chase a true love or see the world all linger in the same way.”

Worries about the downside possibilities when we take a chance and embrace risk cause many nonprofit leaders to choose risk aversion. In a recent Risk Assessment facilitated by the NRMC team, a board member shared their view that the organization’s #1 risk was not acting bold enough. Not surprisingly, that voice was the minority view.

Pink urges his reader to move past mourning and find motivation in regrets. “This is one of the central findings on regret: it can deepen persistence, which almost always elevates performance.”

Risk and Regret

As I read Pink’s new book, the intersection of risk and regret was top of mind. Inspired by the author’s tips for learning and growing in the wake of regret, I recalled several risk-inspired exercises to extract purpose and learning from regrets.

Conduct a Root Cause Analysis.

Recall the natural inquisitiveness of a kindergartener. When children seek to learn more about the world around them, they often plague adults with endless “why?” questions. Each answer is met with more curiosity to unpack the world’s mysteries even further. Risk professionals can emulate this childlike learning technique by asking “why” five times. This process can peel away each distracting layer, revealing the root cause of a problem, mistake, or failure.

Use this worksheet to explore risk events that have already materialized, challenges facing your nonprofit, or hypothetical risks. By the 5th “why,” insights should be more apparent. Your team will have a clearer sense of the “why” and the “how” the event occurred and the inspiration to take meaningful action.

Reimagine the Risk.

In their book, Sticky Wisdom: How to Start a Creative Revolution at Work, the authors explore three methods to help leaders infuse innovation into problem-solving.

  • Re-expression
    Often our word choice suggests learned associations and biases. We can break free from the traps of stagnant thinking by using alternative words, using different senses, and imagining from someone else’s perspective.
  • Revolution
    Start a revolution; break the rules! By challenging the ‘rules’ related to your problem or risk event, nonprofit risk teams can envision roadblocks and find openings of opportunity. Frame your exploration in the form of ‘what if’ questions such as: What if we reversed the process? What if the outcome was exaggerated? What if a trusted partnership failed? What if a philanthropic billionaire aligned with our mission? Answers to these ‘what if’ questions are an inspirational way to explore problem-solving.
  • Random Links
    This method is designed to stretch the imagination! Risk teams challenge themselves to draw connections between the problem at hand or risk event with a completely random object. Think about what makes the object unique, how you would describe it to someone, and what it’s used for. Find a way to connect the facets of this object with the problem you want to solve and watch the perspectives change!
Launch an After-Action Review.

When things go terribly wrong, it’s human nature to want to turn away from the shattered remains of an unsuccessful program, disband a team in disarray, or rebuke the withdrawal of a long-time funder. An After-Action Review is a thoughtful process that explores:

  • What happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How could we have avoided it?
  • What have we learned?
  • What should we do differently?
Put a perimeter around the risk.

After identifying a decision, action, or future event shrouded in uncertainty, identify the worst and best that could happen. Because risk and uncertainty go together, risks often feel like vast, dark clouds that fill the sky. Constraining uncertainty to a spectrum shrinks the vastness of unknowns and makes room for inspiration and action to emerge.

Adopt a journey mindset.

Adopting a journey mindset reminds me of stopping at a scenic overlook area on a road trip to appreciate the landscape and anticipate the next stage of my journey. To encourage a journey mindset on your risk team, invite the team together to reflect on:

  • the lessons you have learned
  • the moments you were grateful for
  • the impact the team’s work is having on the organization’s mission, and
  • the potential impact of future work by the team.

In The Power of Regret, Daniel Pink reminds us that while every human being can choose to act to create the results and outcomes they hope for, none of us are immune to circumstance. While reading the book, I was reminded that risk leaders make decisions—and recommend decisions others will need to make—every day. But whether, when, and how risks materialize will often be affected by factors beyond the reach and influence of even the most accomplished risk professional. Uncertainty reigns. As Pink explains, all human beings, including those who have embraced a risk leadership role in their organizations, have a dual role. “If our lives are the stories we tell ourselves, regret reminds us that we have a dual role. We are both the authors and the actors. We can shape the plot but not fully. We can toss aside the script but not always. We live at the intersection of free will and circumstance.”

Melanie Lockwood Herman is Executive Director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. She would love to hear your stories of reigniting after regret or questions about reimagining risk at Melanie@https://nonprofitrisk.org/ or 703-777-3504.