Treasure hunt

The film Zero Dark Thirty recounts a semi-fictionalized version of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Though some of the characters may have been composites of real people, the film highlights a key dilemma that any leader, and that includes those of us working in life insurance or annuities, faces: Crossing the gap between having intelligence on an opportunity and actually acting on it.

In the film, an operative whose fulltime directive is to locate Bin Laden identifies his location and day, after day, after day, pushes her superiors to act on the intelligence. She has the evidence. She has the proof. And they need to strike before the window closes.

(Related: 4 Ways to Be a Prospecting Innovator)

The dilemma, from a leadership perspective, is not a new one. No level of research or planning can guarantee that an action delivers the result you want. Yes, making the move to capture Bin Laden comes with potentially huge rewards, but the risk of getting it wrong breeds hesitation. The reward that comes with getting it right is substantial, and you have enough information to justify an action, but no matter what there is still an element of the unknown between your plan and your goal.

Whether it’s a military operation or a new marketing idea, you can never escape the possibility of failure. A “sure thing” does not exist. If you jump, you might miss. Then again, you might also make it through the window of opportunity. If you decide not to jump, and instead debate and argue over when is the right time to jump, you miss by default. The window will close whether or not you act.

In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, it took consistent pressure and pushing from a few key people to inspire action, to launch the mission that took down the most wanted man in the world. It was not a guaranteed win. They might have got it wrong. But they didn’t. They got it right.

This is the nature of reward and the nature of growth. The biggest opportunities lie in places where you are not currently engaged. The unknown lies in between.

How can you break out of your hesitation and take smart risks?

Here are six ways to start.

  1. Have a conversation with your team about the importance of experiments and branching out into the unknown.

If you have a business partner or even longtime office staff, doing something new and ambitious can be made more difficult if your team is resistant or negative. If your team does not see the value in pursuing new growth—whether that’s from new clients, expanding wallet share, or both—you will always struggle to break out of your shell.

  1. Address “analysis paralysis” early.

When you have business partners to answer to, you can easily get swept away in endless conversations about whether or not a new idea is the right choice. The concerns may be completely valid, but the discussion is not productive if it loops in endless circles. If you are going to not do something, decide it and move on to the next idea. If you find yourself wasting time, force yourselves to act—one way or the other—so that you can continue to move forward.

  1. Listen for new ideas at all levels of your business.

In The Start-Up Way, start-up guru Eric Ries argues that anyone in your business could have an insight or concept that opens new doors for you. Your people have an equally intimate perspective of your business, and their differing roles gives them unique vantage points. Be open to hearing their observations, and make that practice a scheduled, routine part of your process.

  1. If you try a new marketing tactic, for example, you have to be okay with it failing.

Lower the stakes and run a bunch of smaller tests instead of making a few big gambles. In the angel investing and venture capital circles, they often spread investments out across ten companies or more, and if only one of those investments hits it big, the firm wins. Your marketing is not so different. Make small bets, and keep the winners.

  1. Commit to running a set amount of experiments a quarter.

If you can try one new thing a quarter, or even two new big things a year, you will build your business into new opportunities. When we see clients hesitate to set a cadence for their new ideas, an entire year often trickles by before they have acted. Don’t let that be you. Pick a new idea, try it, give it enough time to succeed, and then move on to the next idea.

  1. Put a person in charge of driving action.

Having that key role—whether it’s in sales, marketing, or the CEO herself—pushing and pushing and pushing can help to break your team out of stagnation. If you do not have that person inside of your business, consider hiring one or bringing in an outside consultant to continuously inject the need for growth into your conversations and your planning.

There is nothing easy about challenging the unknown. It is a difficult process, and you will face obstacles and failures along the way. The biggest danger you face, however, is inaction. If you hesitate, your competitors will seize the opportunity you left untapped.

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John Pojeta

John Pojeta is vice president of business development at The PT Services Group. Before he joined PT, he owned and operated an Ameriprise Financial Services franchise for 16 years.