Sarah Schott is chief compliance officer at Northwestern Mutual. Sarah is passionate about leadership and helping women grow their careers.

In today’s disruptive business world, one way to impact your organization is to suggest new approaches or to challenge the status quo. New ideas can help an organization with anything from running more efficiently to opening new lines of business or markets. But proposing a new idea can also feel risky. What if it gets shot down, or worse, doesn’t work?

Too often we let our fear of what could go wrong stop us from trying things that could go wonderfully right. Here's what I've learned about shifting your mindset so you can work outside your comfort zone and help your organization get ahead by exploring new approaches and either changing or stopping what has been done in the past.


    People tend to pursue ideas that don’t challenge the status quo enough because they underestimate the willingness of company leadership to take on risk and try something new. So, shoot higher; you might be surprised by your manager's reaction. Plus, who's to say that your manager or company leadership is looking at the situation through the right lens? In many cases, we should, in fact, be challenging our leaders to think differently.


    When pitching an out-of-the-box idea, make sure you clearly understand, appreciate and communicate the risks and the opportunities that are involved. When everyone knows what the worst-case scenario might look like (in addition to the best-case) everyone can be a better judge of whether it's worth acting on. And if they do agree to accept the risk, they're more likely to have your back if it doesn't work out.


    You can control the level of risk by controlling the size of your experiment. So, start small. We once asked a team to come up with a more efficient process for calling clients and obtaining their health history. The group proposed using an auto-dialer instead of having a live person call a dozen different numbers until they connected with a client.

    The system would auto-dial until it reached someone, and would then play a recorded message, "Hold please for a few minutes while Northwestern Mutual gets ready to ask you your health history questionnaire."

    Our leaders were extremely concerned because they worried this would have a negative impact on the client’s experience. But we piloted the idea with a small group. It turned out, our clients only had to wait a short time before they were connected to a live customer service person and the introductory message was framed in a client friendly way. Survey results showed the clients didn't mind the auto-dialer or the wait, and we saved a lot of time. Now, it's standard operating procedure.


    This has been one of the biggest a-ha moments for me as I've learned to get more comfortable with risk. If you try something and it doesn't work, most of the time you can go back to the old way, or try a different approach. There are almost always multiple right answers. Make sure to set goals for the new approach and if your first attempt doesn’t achieve them, reframe and try again. If you go through the right process of exploring options, communicating and managing risk, and learning from the results, you position yourself to help lead your company into the future.

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