For those of you who missed Pat Howlett’s talk on Thursday 1/3, I’ll share one thing I got from it that resonated with me. There were a number of other elements in Pat's talk yesterday and I've only covered one element; if you missed it, be sure to jump on the next opportunity to hear Pat present.
Pat asked us to consider that negative thinking has value—despite all we have been told about "thinking positive." Some of you may have read my past writings where I’ve gone on rants about positive attitude tapes and affirmations, but Pat highlighted another side to this. Negative thinking isn’t just about gloom and doom; it’s about using the power of the imagination to anticipate very real pitfalls and traps that can cross any of our paths even with well-thought-out plans.
Jim Collins, author of Great by Choice, highlighted traits that were common to startup companies during the treacherous inception phase that most fledgling enterprises don’t survive. (Side note: some may be more familiar with Collins’s earlier work, Good to Great). He set out to find what it was that enabled these uncommon entrepreneurs to thrive and achieve great things while their peers struggled and sank. Collins dubbed one such trait “productive paranoia.” For example, Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote an exhaustive and detailed list of everything that might possibly go wrong. It was called “the nightmare memo.” According to Collins, this memo was leaked to the newspapers, causing Microsoft’s stock to temporarily drop. Interestingly, Gates had penned the memo during a successful period for Microsoft—right as Windows was becoming the standard for desktop PC’s: “[Gates] worried constantly about who might be the next Bill Gates, some freaky high school kid toiling away 22 hours a day in some dingy little office coming up with a lethal torpedo to fire at Microsoft.”
I’ve given a lot of thought to how I can apply this to my own situation in 2013. Reflecting on the past few years since I first left my corporate job for the world of entrepreneurship, I can see that my planning process lacked a healthy dose of reality. I was always taught the opposite; specifically, I had learned to think only of the positive and eliminate any thought of failure. I think we’ve become a feel-good culture, addicted to laying beautiful plans and setting “stretch goals” for no other reason than to enjoy the excitement of the moment. I know I’ve been guilty of that myself.
To name one example, I attempted to sell protein shakes and vitamins back in 2007. I bought into this multilevel marketing business with a mindset of “I cannot possibly fail.” We were encouraged to ignore “limiting beliefs” and assured that all we needed to do was follow the one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter plan we’d been given. Surely, I reasoned, a plan that had worked for so many other people couldn’t possibly fail me. I charged blindly ahead until I hit a brick wall and threw in the towel.
Had I used the kind of technique Pat suggested today, I might have given some thought to the fact that I had no real sales experience. I might have looked at the enormous flood of health and wellness products on the market and honestly asked myself how I would differentiate the ones I was selling at a considerably higher price than many others. I might have pondered the fact that I would be putting myself in direct competition with countless others selling comparable products, as well as nutritionists, chiropractors, wellness clinics, holistic practitioners, personal trainers, and professional coaches with training far beyond anything I brought to the table.
What I was left with after yesterday's talk: this type of "negative thinking" isn't about coming up with a perfect plan by anticipating and avoiding everything that could possibly go wrong. That's not possible. Instead, it's about identifying as many ways as possible to maximize the chances of success by safeguarding against problems before they happen. For example, I've found that I'm more productive when I leave my house. That's just one way I've figured out how to set up a condition that improves my odds of accomplishing what I've set out to accomplish.
Your turn: have you ever incorporated the worst-case scenario into your planning process? Have you personally found it to be useful? Leave a comment here.