Comparing upsides and downsides

4x4 diagram showing bubbles A to E with different mixes of upside and downside

A time of change forces us to take decisions based on little information and without knowing how things are going to turn out.

One way to do this is by applying our purpose and values. Alternatively we can learn from our past, our future, or from people we admire, or even look for more ways to move forward.

If that doesn’t bring a clear answer, this post presents a more analytical technique for choosing between your options.

To apply it, first make a short list of your preferred options.

Then remind yourself of the key factors shaping the context of your decision:

  • How important is this issue compared with your other priorities?
  • Who are the key stakeholders (including yourself)
  • What will most inspire you/them, what do you/they want to avoid?
  • When do you need to take a decision by?
  • How quickly does a solution need to be implemented?
  • How long does it need to last and how robust does it need to be to changing circumstances?
  • What resources are appropriate and available?

Then examine each option in turn:

  • What are the upsides, the advantages and benefits it might bring?
  • How likely or achievable are these and how easy to implement?
  • What are the downsides of each option, the disadvantages and difficulties they bring?
  • How likely are these and how difficult to avoid?

For each option, rank the upsides and the downsides as “high, very high, low, or very low.” Rank the ease of implementation as easy (green), difficult (red), or medium (amber).

By now you may have found your preferred option.

If you still can’t choose (or if you want to get a deeper understanding of the decision you have made) map your preferred few options on to a grid like the one above.

Comparing them will bring deeper insights. And once you know which option you prefer you can ask yourself what actions would shift it more towards the top left and/or make it easier to implement.

There are no right answers here. In the example shown above I chose Option B (even though it was the most difficult to implement) because it also brought the biggest upsides and the lowest downsides.

Elon Musk has a similar attitude to risk. He said:

“When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.”

But there are no rules here — which option is best for you depends on your attitude to risk and your situation.

When so much is changing in the world it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen. All ways forward will be difficult. What makes the difference to finding the best way forward will be the inspiration you create in yourself and your key stakeholders. Thinking through the upsides and downsides is a quick way to find that.

Are you currently choosing between alternative ways forward? Have you shortlisted the options? Have you thought through the upsides and downsides of each? Would it be useful to find your maximum inspiration?


Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.

You can sign up to daily posts here.

Leave a Reply