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