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 get better at taking decisions based on little information and without knowing how things are going to turn out.

One way of doing this is by looking for more ways to move forward and then choosing what most inspires us. Another way is to apply our purpose and values. A third is to learn from our past, our future, or from people we admire.

If none of these bring clarity, this post provides a final, more analytical approach.

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

Then remind yourself of the key factors shaping the context of your decision. These might include things like:

  • Why does this issue matter, compared with your other priorities?
  • Who are the key stakeholders (including yourself)?
  • What will most inspire you/them and what are you/they most keen 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?

All these set the context for the choice you need to make.

Then examine each option in turn:

  • What are the Upsides of this option: the benefits and advantages it might bring?
  • How likely or achievable are these and how easy will they be to implement?
  • What are the Downsides of this option: the disadvantages and difficulties it might bring?
  • How likely are these and how difficult difficult are they 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 already have decided the option you prefer.

If you haven’t (or if you’d like to get a deeper understanding of the decision you have intuitively made) map out your preferred few options on to a grid like the one above. This will force you to why one option has more Upsides or more Downsides than another.

Once you are clear on which option you prefer, you can then ask yourself what actions you might take to shift that option towards the top left (and/or make it easier to implement).


There are no right answers apart from what you choose:

In the example shown above I chose Option B — even though it was the most difficult to implement — because it brought me the biggest Upsides and the smallest Downsides, and that was what I wanted at the time.

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 — the option that is best for you depends on your situation and your attitude to risk. This is why it is important to review the ‘context’ questions first.


The bottom line is that when so much is changing all at once, it is impossible to predict exactly what is going to happen. All ways forward will be difficult.

What makes the difference to finding the best way forward is the inspiration you can create in yourself and your key stakeholders: finding that is what will make you antifragile in a time of change. Thinking through the Upsides and the Downsides is one more way to find that.

Are you currently choosing between alternative ways forward? Have you shortlisted your best options? Have you thought through the Upsides and Downsides of each?

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

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(And remember: you don’t learn to swim by reading about swimming, you also need to practice.)

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