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Doing the “Impossible”

September 16, 2012

Chris Schmitt

This post was partly inspired by an article by Seth Godin entitled Risk, Fear and Worry (and they’re not the same). I was having a particularly stressful week and getting into one of the “I don’t know where to start” moods. Reading Seth’s post made me realize that I was having troubles telling the difference between risk, fear and worry. As a result, I developed this simple approach that can be applied to anything: work, home, a new idea, a big project, starting a business, climbing Mt. Everest; whatever tickles your fancy.

The Technique

Here’s how it works:

  1. Take blank page and divide it into three columns. At the top of the first column write “Worries”, on the second write “Fears” and on the third write “Risks”
  2. In the Worries column right down everything that’s keeping you up at night.  Don’t worry about whether it’s rational or baseless. Just right it down. If it’s on your mind then it’s real and must be dealt with.
  3. In the Fears column write down what you are afraid of, i.e. what’s the worst thing that could happen if you don’t deal with those worries?
  4. For each item in the Fears column, in the third column write down the risk of it coming to fruition. How likely is the risk (high, medium or low) and over what time-frame (urgent, non-urgent).

You now have the basis of an action plan. Take all the high and medium risk items from the third column and add them to your ToDo list as either “today”, “up next” or “some day”. Make sure you are doing something to make progress on all of the high risk items. If something needs immediate attention, deal with it as soon as possible. If it’s a high or medium risk item, but over a longer term, break it into smaller bite-sized tasks and tackle it over time, before it becomes an urgent problem. For things that are non-urgent and low risk, forget about them! Go through this exercise at least once a month or at the beginning of a large project.

You will be surprised that many of your fears and worries really low risk or things that you are really powerless to change.

How it works

Risks that have not been identified, quantified, and when necessary, actioned, create debilitating fear, and debilitating fear will turn into obsessive worry. This a natural phenomena that all of us humans experience and it’s a normal physiological response mechanism.

This technique works because you start with the often irrational worries, which are easy to identify. Then you pinpoint the real risks that can be addressed in a sensible manner. Going the other way, i.e. starting by identifying risks fist, doesn’t work as well because you really have no sense of prioritization or weighting. It’s kind of like packing your bags before you know where you’re going.

The technique works particularly well for teams. When you’re first starting a challenging project everyone has worries, but not everyone will express their worries because they may feel it’s a sign of weakness. Getting everyone to express their worries and fears helps to identify and prioritize the real risks and put actions in place to mitigate those risks. The key is never to criticize anyone (including yourself) for expressing their worries; they are real and founded. They just need to be quantified and actioned appropriately.

From my observations, the most successful people and teams not only identify risks early on and do something about them, but they also have a sense for things that they really have no control over in the immediate sense and decide conscientiously not to deal with until truly necessary. They are able to separate important and likely risks from non-important and unlikely risks and better able to execute and tackle long term goals.

Great, but what does this have to do with doing the “impossible”?

This technique can literally be applied to anything. Fear of failure is the #1 reason people don’t start something new (and risky). Whether it’s improving an existing company, starting a new company, cycling across Canada, changing your career, or landing a robot on the surface of the moon. Until you rationalize your fears it will never happen.

What’s keeping you from starting something new (and risky)? What’s keeping you from pushing your boundaries? Are you worried you’re not skilled enough? Are you worried you don’t have time? Are you worried your idea is not good enough? Each of these worries are just that: worries. You can learn. You can find the time or join a team. You can validate your idea.

One thing for sure, no one ever gets anything done by worrying, right?



One Comment

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  1. January 18, 2013

    I needed that. Thanks Chris.

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