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Taking Risks: Are You a Sniper or a Gunslinger?

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Dave Christiansen recognizes that most organizations need the professional boldness of the gunslinger and the wily risk avoidance of the sniper. Here's why.
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Elaine was desperate. Her IT project was approved and ready to go to the next step (funding), but as the business sponsor she couldn’t find an IT project manager who was willing to take it on. The project involved a lot of technical risk and a distinct possibility of abject failure. Every IT project manager was willing to help—but not willing to own, and the estimates reflected the fear, uncertainty, and doubt they felt, ranging from the ludicrous to the insane.

After months of searching on Elaine’s part, a software engineer with project management ambitions stepped up to the plate. Joe didn’t try to attack the entire problem at once; instead, he suggested focusing on the single most important business capability Elaine wanted to implement, to see whether they could be successful with that one aspect of the project. He also proposed a project management approach that was completely out of the norm for their large IT organization—introducing Agile project management principles into an organization that was decidedly waterfall. To Elaine, this plan seemed to be little more than "Let’s just jump in and figure it out as we go." But she didn’t care. By that point, she was so desperate for results that she would try anything. They waded into the problem, guns blazing, and within two months were able to deliver the business capability Elaine needed most, at a fraction of the cost of the original estimates.

The upside from this risk? Less than a year later, Joe isn’t a software engineer anymore. He’s a program manager, with a multimillion-dollar budget and several important business initiatives under his control. More importantly, Elaine’s once-stalled initiative is moving forward, adding value quickly and helping the business to compete more effectively in the marketplace. Joe and Elaine moved ahead because they acted like gunslingers, taking full ownership of the project to get the job done.

Why Be a Risk-Taker?

In the dramatic conclusion of the 1990 film Quigley Down Under, the hero, Quigley, squares off against the villain, Marston, and two of his thugs. The men draw, bullets fly, and Marston and his thugs drop to their knees, mortally wounded. With his dying breath, Marston says, "I didn’t think you could use a revolver." Quigley responds, "I said I never had much use for one. Never said I didn’t know how to use it."

Quigley didn’t care for combat at close quarters, but he was smart enough to know he still needed to be good at it. Likewise, successful risk-taking in today’s world requires the development of risk-taking styles and an understanding of when to use them that extends beyond those skills with which we feel most comfortable.

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