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The World's Smartest Companies Take Risks, But Not All Of Them Are The Best Bet

When taking risks, the smartest companies turn to a "risk, survive, repeat" strategy. But can they get it right?

The World's Smartest Companies Take Risks, But Not All Of Them Are The Best Bet
Illustration by Liz Meyer

People weren't buying much during the Great Depression. This we know. But from 1929 to 1933, refrigerator sales went up 30%—because it was a "highly innovative product" at the time, says the Boston Consulting Group. Even more important: It was produced by an industry willing to hire people, invest in research and development, and market itself when others weren't. Which is to say, it was an industry willing to take some risks. Eighty years later, not much has changed: The economy is sour, and it's time to be contrarian. "This is the time of opportunity," says Yoram Wind, a marketing professor at the Wharton School. "When times are good, people add things, they do more things—but not all of that is leading to a return. Now is a chance to ask, Can we do things more efficiently?" That may explain why companies such as Netflix and Gap have made big, structural changes in hopes of resetting their trajectories. But in this climate, not all shake-ups work well. So who's taking the right risks? In the list below and the pages that follow, we offer a guide to this moment of fear and change.

More Risk:

The 20 Riskiest Moves of 2011
Who's The Riskiest In Business?
The Panic-O-Meter
You're Wired To Take Chances
The Year's Five Biggest Nonrisk Risks
Risk, As Defined By...
The Job Chain
Go Big Or Go Home In 2012

Reporting by Anthonia Akitunde, Rachel Z. Arndt, Sara Cann, Emma Haak, Dan Macsai, Kate Rockwood, Patrick J. Sauer

Typography and illustrations by Liz Meyer

A version of this article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.