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 become better at taking decisions based on little or no information and without knowing how things are going to turn out.

One way to do this is by following our purpose and values. Three other ways are to learn from our past, our future, or from people we admire. A fifth way is to find more opportunities in the situation and then choose whatever most inspires us to long to make it happen.

And if none of these approaches brings clarity then a sixth, more analytical approach might be useful.

To use this, first make a shortlist of your preferred options.

Then remind yourself of the most important factors that define the context of your decision. These might include:

  • Why does this issue matter, compared with your other priorities?
  • Who are the key stakeholders (including yourself)?
  • What outcome would most inspire you, and them?
  • What do you and they most want to avoid?
  • When do you need to take a decision by?
  • How rapidly does a solution need to be implemented?
  • How long does the chosen solution need to last and how robust does it need to be to changing circumstances?
  • What resources are available compared with what is needed for each option?

Thinking through these conflicting priorities might already be enough to help you choose between the options. 

If not, then the best option for you will be provided by the best balance between these competing priorities. This might not be the ‘perfect’ solution you would choose in an ideal world but it will be the best mix that is available to you now — perhaps the ‘least bad’ alternative. Gaining clarity on what that is will at least get you unstuck and enable you to move forward.

So to choose between your shortlisted options, ask yourself for each one:

  • What are the main Upsides of this option, the benefits and advantages it would bring?
    Then rank these overall as “High, Very High, Low, or Very Low”
  • How likely or achievable are these outcomes and how easy will this option be to implement?
    Then rank these overall as easy (Green), difficult (Red), or medium (Amber)
  • What are the main Downsides of this option, the disadvantages and difficulties it would bring?
    Then rank these overall as “High, Very High, Low, or Very Low”

Again, just thinking through these questions might be enough to show you which option you prefer.

And if not, then the final step is to map out your preferred options on a grid like the one shown above. Are the Upsides and Downsides High, Very High, Low, or Very Low? And how easy are they to implement (Red, Green, or Amber)?

If you haven’t already decided then creating this map will force you to get clear on why each option has slightly higher or lower Upsides and Downsides than the others. And if you have already made your decision then doing this will still bring you a deeper understanding of why you chose that option. 

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Which Option Is Right for You?

Once you’ve drawn this map there is no rule that tells you which option you should pick.

Every option will bring you a mix of upsides and downsides. And it’s up to you to decide which combinations of upsides and downsides you prefer to move forward with and which you prefer to avoid.

In the example shown above, I chose Option B even though it was the most difficult to implement. That was because this option had the potential to bring me the biggest Upsides and the smallest Downsides and that was what I wanted at the time. In that particular situation I was willing to take the risks to get the benefits.

This matches Elon Musk’s attitude to risk. He says:

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

But there are no rules here — the best option for you depends on your attitude to risk and reward in your particular situation. That is why it is important for you to review the ‘context’ questions first.

In this time of change, all ways forward are going to be difficult. Thinking through the Upsides and Downsides of each option is yet another way to find the best way forward for you and for the people around you.

Gaining the clarity this process brings is also yet another way to make both you and them more antifragile.

Are you currently choosing between alternative ways forward? Do you have a shortlist of preferred options? Have you thought through and mapped out the Upsides and Downsides of each option?


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

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