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May 12, 2020 The Practice of Taking Risk – an Uprisor Innovation Discussion

Paul Roben is a professor at UC San Diego, where he’s been vice-chancellor of the Innovation Program since 2016. The Innovation Program focuses on creating an environment for the entrepreneurial spirit to flourish, and a major part of that is helping people understand how to take risks. Part of their mission as described on the program’s website, is “to contribute to a sustainable society by empowering a diverse entrepreneurial culture on campus and strengthening a dynamic innovation ecosystem.”

Topcoder’s Clinton Bonner recently spoke with Roben for the Uprisor podcast. Their conversation focused on breeding innovation, how to encourage productive risk-taking, and the continuing evolution of remote work.

Enjoy a video and recap of the discussion, below. 

Coronavirus & Remote Work 

Clinton and Paul begin by talking about how remote work is booming due to the current pandemic. Paul points out that while many workers are doing their jobs remotely for the first time, in many industries “the nature of work has been changing for decades”. The tools and strategies that allow for successful remote work have been in development for some time, and Paul also notes that there are specific skills that apply to remote work (but also have a lot to do with successful communication in any scenario).

This crisis, while serious and disruptive, is “forcing us to operate in new and different ways” and that the core skills of entrepreneurship — adaptability, leadership, creative thinking, communication, and being able to handle uncertainty and risk — are in particular focus when working remotely and dealing with a global crisis.

The nature of work has been changing for decades.

Paul Roben, Vice-Chancellor, UCSD

Risk-Taking and Success

Paul discusses how his program tries to create an environment of productive risk-taking, an approach that includes carefully allowing students to fail, guiding them to learn from their failures, and demonstrating risk-taking as an institution.

According to Paul, teaching students to take risks requires a delicate balance of being open to failure while not allowing them to completely jeopardize their ultimate success. He tries to show them that risk and uncertainty aren’t necessarily bad; they can help students develop into more successful people. According to Paul, “you have to show them you believe in them” by “giving them the space to make mistakes…but not turning around and saying ‘I told you so’ after they do.” Instead, when a student fails, the response is, “What did you learn from that?”.

Why is risk important? Paul explains that students who fail often learn more than those who were lucky enough to make something work right off the bat. Failure, in a supportive environment, is a valuable teaching tool that can build creativity, resilience, and adaptivity.

Paul notes that the institution itself also has to be willing to take risks, otherwise teaching about risk-taking rings hollow to students. 

Diversity of Thought

Clinton and Paul wrap up their talk by discussing a specific kind of diversity that contributes to problem-solving in the modern world: diversity of thought. From Paul’s perspective, the academic world and the way students are taught can often become too narrow and specialized. Many students (and graduates) lack the kind of well-rounded perspective that can enable creative approaches to challenges. He and Clinton agree that core skills—like communication—are just as important in today’s work environment as specialized technical skills and knowledge, especially in remote work.

Clinton closes by noting that at Topcoder, challenge winners are often not subject matter experts in the specific industry of the challenge, but they have the skills and perspective to see the challenge from a new angle and come up with a successful solution.

If you’re ready to innovate with remote, on-demand talent, contact us.


Alexa Baray


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