When Is It Time To Take a Risk?

My wife Shar and I watched the premiere of the new TV series Terra Nova the other night off of our DVR. I’m usually a week behind in my television viewing.

I was impressed with the production value. While it doesn’t have the polish of a current feature film, it easily surpasses the vast majority of feature film production values from the time of Jurassic Park 17 years ago. (Jurassic Park director Steven Spielberg executive produced this show.) And the writing, while not great, isn’t horrible either. I read a post the other day on screenwriter John August’s blog that argues we’re living in a sort of golden age of network dramas now. He says TV is where all the good drama is. While I am not sure the characters in Terra Nova are on par with a Franzen novel, they were at least as good as James Cameron’s Avatar characters. (I make this comparison because of the sci-fi alternate world premise and the presence of actor Stephen Lang, who plays similar characters in both.)

Shar and I decided to give the series another try with episode two. One of the reasons was because of an exchange of dialogue in the pilot that spoke to me.

The protagonists are a family of five that decided to accept an offer to ride the Spacetime Express from a dying, ecologically depleted future Earth, which looks remarkably different than our present in spite of it only being 150 years into the future, to a colony established 85 million years in the past. If I was future Chief Spacetime Officer I think I would have avoided setting up camp next to a T Rex nest but of course then what fun would it be for the writers?

The family mom is a doctor and the dad a policeman who has recently done a stint in the future pokey for hitting a fellow cop after getting busted for breaking the 2-kid maximum law. In their first day at dino-camp they cope with a dinosaur attack that slices some minor characters open and kills an indiscriminate number of $110 dollar a day extras. When the chaos dies down, the town sheriff, played by Stephen Lang, pays a visit to Doctor Mom. He asks her about her motivations: “You’re a doctor. You must have had connections in the future. You could have carved out a life for yourself there. Why take a risk and come here?”

She said, “Yes, I could have made the choice to take a nice sized share of ever dwindling resources for my family and I. Many of my colleagues did that. But what sort of future would I leave my children? I chose to come here because it’s a place with a future that I can build on.” (These are paraphrases because I can’t find the full script online and don’t want to watch the whole thing again.)

Her comment resonated for me. In other words, the risks posed by the new environment were better than the risks in the old environment because while each presented hazards, the new environment at least suggested a better future. That is a smart mom.

Pip Coburn wrote a book on the premise that people only change when the pain of their existing situation exceeds the perceived pain of changing to a new situation. Risk taking may be a bad idea when the benefits of the current situation outweigh the perceived benefits of a new situation, but it becomes an important strategic alternative when the existing situation’s benefits become questionable.

I make my living in the church – in the local church and now in a United Methodist denominational setting. The denomination is declining, rapidly, and I am witnessing many denominational level personnel fighting over access to an ever dwindling pool of resources. To give you an idea, the average age of the local United Methodist pastor has increased 10 years in the last 10 years. Think about that. In healthy settings, the average would stay the same or even go slightly down. To age an employment population 10 years in 10 years is the equivalent to adding no new personnel in that entire time. That’s kind of what is happening, too, along with older pastors continuing on later in their careers and newer pastors starting their ministry careers at a more advanced age (read: second career pastors with questionable success in their first field). The average United Methodist pastor is now 58. What happens in seven years, when already burdened pension plans take on the additional weight of the bulk of the bell curve of pastors entering retirement? Who is going to populate the pulpit in all of the small, old United Methodist churches around the country? The denomination is in for some serious change in a decade. And there is some recognition of this, albeit late and inadequate.

While no one likes to make unnecessary risks, at what point does it become necessary? The strategic leader recognizes decline early in the game instead of waiting until it’s too late to turn the organization around. The question for every leader, whether the setting is corporate, church or home, is, where are the current trendlines pointing? If they’re pointing down, is it an aberration or the new reality? And if it is the new reality, then what changes need to happen to fix the problem before it becomes too late? Responsible leadership involves making hard, risky choices to create a healthy future.

The pilot episode of Fox’s Terra Nova provides an interesting illustration on the leadership dilemma of moving forward well and providing for a healthy future amidst a rapidly dwindling set of resources. What area do you see declining resource, and what changes do you need to make to create a better future?