Praise be to risk

Shoot first, mull later: Northampton chief speaks in praise of risky business. David Matthews writes

March 7, 2013

“Ready, aim, fire” may seem like a sensible motto for anyone looking to hit the target with a new initiative. But at the University of Northampton, the vice-chancellor is urging staff to adopt a radical twist on this mantra: “Ready, fire, aim.”

Universities should “get ready, fire and then think about it afterwards” when trying something new instead of spending “too much time aiming, trying to get it just between the cross hairs”, Nick Petford told a conference held by student recruitment company Hobsons in London on 26 February.

Those designing new courses, for example, were always after “a bit more data, a bit more research”, he said. “The danger with that approach is that you’ve missed your opportunity” and another university will have been “sharper, quicker, faster”, he added.

For the past decade, he said, universities had lived in a low-risk environment, confident they would get an increase in funding each year, but the introduction of a market-like system that encourages competition for students meant the landscape was becoming more uncertain.

“Just doing nothing is risky in itself,” Professor Petford said, urging institutions to be “more accepting of risk, otherwise other universities will do it before you and gain competitive advantage”.

He said that those in senior positions at universities “have virtually never failed at anything because they’ve kept passing stuff” and were therefore afraid of taking risks.

He quoted both William Shakespeare and former England football coach Sven-Göran Eriksson to make the point that the “greatest barrier to success is fear of failure”.

Universities “should be the places where fear of making mistakes should be banned” and human resources policies should change to reflect this, he said, adding that he meant failure in a “controlled” rather than a “catastrophic” sense.

He noted that about 600 students at Northampton have been awarded £2,000 grants to start new enterprises or projects. “Most of these will fail. However, the students will learn something through that failure,” he said.

Professor Petford may have been inspired by the 2008 book Ready, Fire, Aim: Zero to $100 Million in No Time Flat by US “self-made millionaire” Michael Masterson, who appears to have popularised the phrase.

In the book, Mr Masterson, who describes himself as “not your typical businessman”, explains how to “avoid the time- and money-wasting mistakes many entrepreneurs make” and promises to put the reader “on the path to $100 million, $300 million and beyond in revenues with your own venture”.

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