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 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 us 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, 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
  • What do you/they most 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?

The balance between these competing priorities shapes what will be the best option for the choice you need to make.

Now examine each of your preferred options 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 to happen and how easy are they to avoid or mitigate?

For each option, rank the Upsides as “high, very high, low, or very low.” Rank the Downsides as “high, very high, low, or very low.” Rank how easy this option is to implement as easy (green), difficult (red), or medium (amber).

By this stage you may already have decided which option you prefer.

If not (or if you’d simply like to get a deeper understanding of why you’ve intuitively chosen the option you have) map out your preferred few options on a grid like the one above. This forces you to get clear on why one option has more Upsides or more Downsides than another.

And once you are clear which option you prefer, you can then ask yourself what extra actions you might take to increase the upsides and reduce the downsides (and/or make it easier to implement).

There are no right answers apart from what is best for you:

In the example shown above I chose Option B, even though it was the most difficult to implement. This was because it brought me the biggest Upsides and the smallest Downsides, and that was what I wanted at the time. I was willing to take the risk to get the potential 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 your situation. This is why it is important to review the ‘context’ questions first.

The Bottom Line 

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 to keep going despite the difficulties.

Finding that inspiration will make you antifragile in a time of change. And thinking through the Upsides and the Downsides is one more way to make it clearer.

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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