by Brett Hagler
I’m the CEO and Co-founder at New Story - a nonprofit that builds homes and communities for the world’s poor internationally. This year, we’ll surpass 2,000 homes building 17 communities collectively, since our founding in 2015.
Recently, in partnership with ICON, we unveiled the first ever 3D home printer and printed home designed to serve the world’s most vulnerable families. There are one billion people in the world who don’t have safe shelter, and we built this printer specifically to meet their needs.
The 3D home printing initiative has drawn praise but also much criticism. Why did we do it? Shouldn’t we be focusing our efforts on our core business — building homes — and not on risky new innovations?
While risk-taking might seem dangerous to some, we believe R&D and product innovation are essential in the pursuit of solving a one billion person problem. Taking big swings with forward-thinking technology increases our chance to achieve quantum leaps in speed, affordability, and quality.
The danger of playing it safe
Challenging traditional methods and testing breakthrough concepts are core to New Story’s DNA. The roots of innovation go deep for us, and for me, the basis is biblical. I draw inspiration from the Parable of the Talents, in which the Master entrusts his workers with some money and goes away for a while. When he comes back, he expects a return on his investment. As the story goes, the one that took no risks was reprimanded by the frustrated Master:
“That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. Get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb.” (Matthew 25:26,30 MSG)
The Master tells us he’s after the best. He’s not interested in the status quo. In all the work I do, I strive to defy a “play-it-safe” mentality so I can bring the highest return to the Master. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Larry Page, Co-Founder of Google, says, “10% improvement means you’re doing the same as everyone else and ensures you won’t fail but you’ll never succeed wildly.”
If your mission is to change more lives, then playing it safe is irresponsible. Steady, linear, 10% improvements will never solve the monumental challenges we face. Leaders in social impact and ministry ecosystems, consider taking a “playing it safe audit” of your organization. Size up which initiatives aren’t thinking big enough yet, and which ones could give you an opportunity to “succeed wildly.”
Going out on a limb with wisdom
“Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” Proverbs 19:20
If we take big risks without discipline and wisdom, then we’re not innovative, we’re just dumb. Always think big and stretch your imagination — and then start small. We dreamed way beyond our limits when we thought up the idea to design a 3D printer for the world’s poor, but then we backed way up and started with careful, calculated steps:
Conducted 6+ months of research and seeking counsel
Chose to fire a bullet before the cannonball by creating a lower cost prototype first
Secured 100% sign off from our Board of Directors
Made sure we could afford to lose what we spent (though it would hurt a little)
Often, we put “conservative wisdom” against “innovative risk-taking,” but the dichotomy is false and dangerous. The only way to bring the highest gain back to the Master is by practicing the “genius of the and.” Solving a billion person problem doesn’t happen by choosing either discipline or going out on a limb, it happens when you’re living in the cross-section of those two things. Be disciplined and take big risks.
What if we all went out on more limbs?
Imagine if all social impact organizations and ministries had a calculated “Out on a Limb” line item in their budget. You could measure that line item by setting annual and quarterly objectives, measured by pre-determined key results. In a year, we’d be generating a more significant return to the Master.
If we fail, worst case scenario — we miss out on a small improvement but we’re okay organizationally because it’s a calculated risk built into our budget. And if it works… our mission succeeds wildly.
As a faith-driven entrepreneur, I’m inspired by God’s creative, evolving and redemptive ambition. I believe God’s Word makes it clear we must take more calculated risks so we can impact more lives exponentially faster and better.