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Cancel the Apocalypse

Nothing is inevitable. Success and failure have little to do with fate. They have everything to do with the ability to dream big, while engaging the small details of the real world.

The recent article, You Are Not the Horse: Rules for Entrepreneurs, demonstrated a few simple tactics for managing the psychological and financial risks of starting a new venture.

As I said in the article, whether you’re looking for a multi-million-dollar start-up investment or simply proposing an innovative idea to your team:

…The fear of failure itself isn’t actually the scariest part. For most people, the scariest part is the fear of looking foolish, slipping on the proverbial banana peel, leading a parade with no one following.

In addition to the rules-of-road shared in the article, here’s another bit of uncommon advice: visualize the “apocalypse”, then cancel it.

When faced with the fear of failure or looking foolish, the natural tendency is to do one of two things. Most commonly, people obsess over the uncertainty and “what-if’s”. This typically leads to inaction as a potentially great idea is frozen in a thick ice of worry and anxiety.

The second most common reaction is to overcome the fear of risk through denial. In some ways this is more dangerous as it masks real potential threats and cautionary data that one should take into account when starting a new venture. “Thinking positive” and “believing in yourself” can be excellent habits. However, sometimes there are real threats that must be confronted or tactically avoided.

Fear isn’t always bad. Sometimes it is the natural and healthy signal that you need to pay attention to a very real danger.

If you’re hiking in the woods and hear a deep and rumbling growl, thinking positive will not change the fact that a grizzly bear is indeed right around the bend. Fear is not only appropriate, it is absolutely necessary to completely focus your attention on the new development at hand.

Knowing how to work with and through that fear is the difference between a novice and expert innovator.

Here’s an example. My own organization is in the midst of creating a new five-year strategic plan. In many organizations this might be done via a siloed leadership retreat. All the c-suite folks gather in some posh location for a week or so, work-up some novel new directions, and return to work like a squadron of B-52s to carpet bomb staff with new visions and mandates.

We did the opposite.

For the better part of a year we’ve engaged, in various ways, nearly every segment of staff and even some external stakeholders to discuss who we are, who we want be, and how to get there.

One of the very first exercises we did with the help of some great mentors, was to ask the staff to consider the following:

If we were to catastrophically fail as an organization, what are the ways in which that would most likely happen?

The activity didn’t imply that any of these scenarios were particularly likely. However, if an organizational apocalypse were to happen how would it happen? That was the task.

Senior leaders were asked to recuse themselves from most of this activity. The reason for this is that we are the ones most likely to engage in all of the bad habits described above. It is the VP’s and CEOs that are the most likely to freeze and encourage everyone to keep doing what they’ve always done and keep selling what they’ve always sold. Especially, if the organization has a history of past success, this is very alluring. Why change what you’re doing if seems to be working? These organizations manage fear by ossifying and rigidly adhering to a story about themselves and their services that, over time, becomes disconnected to what’s happening in the real world.

A classic example of this is Polaroid. Once the king of consumer photography products, they failed to make the early jump to digital. Even though they were one of the first to see the new technology coming, leadership was attached to a success story centered on analog technology that no longer allowed for change and evolution.

Senior leaders are also most likely to do the opposite. They become possessed by new ideas and visions, so much so that any expression of caution is treated as heresy to be shunned, minimized, and expelled from the organizational consciousness. These organizations load-up the dragster with rocket fuel and plunge off the cliff while high-fiving each other.

So, for several weeks our staff brainstormed a fictional tale about how a once thriving organization failed in several key areas of strategic development. These hypothetical failures to innovate were so catastrophic, they doomed the organization in this dark alternate reality. This is what staff presented to senior leadership for discussion.

Again, this exercise didn’t mean that any of these things would, or were likely to, happen. It meant that if we failed to continue to grow, evolve, and innovate, they could happen. In that sense, each scenario was undeniably plausible.

Listening to a plausible story about the failure of our collective dreams was a sobering experience for all. It was also necessary and invaluable.

Each element of the story exposed a real or potential gap in our vision, innovation, planning, or deployment of time, talent, and resources. Each of those gaps was brought into exceptionally high definition, discussed openly, and engaged directly in all subsequent planning activity. In essence:

We creatively envisioned what an organizational apocalypse would like, and then we cancelled it.

We didn’t cancel it by asking everyone to clap their hands and believe in Tinkerbell. We didn’t cancel it by screaming, “Damn the torpedoes! Full-steam ahead!” We cancelled it by taking real and sober stock of what we were doing exceptionally well, and what we needed to do exceptionally better.

That’s how a dream really comes to life. It might look like luck, brilliance, or magic from afar. However, up close you’ll see that success is always the nexus point at which visionary talent meets hard work that is grounded in reality. Add a healthy dash of courage, honesty, and humility and any organization can stare into the gaping maw of the abyss and calmly say, “No. Not today.”

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