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 noticing what inspires us. Another is by applying our purpose and values. Alternatively we can seek to learn from our past, our future, or from people we admire.

And if none of these brings us clarity, this post presents a final, more analytical approach for choosing between our options.

To apply it, first make a short list of your top three to five preferred options.

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

  • 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 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?

This sets the context for your choice.

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 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).

Simply doing this might reveal 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. Doing this will bring you deeper insights into why one option has more upsides than another, why one option brings more downsides.

And once you are clear on which option you prefer you can then ask yourself what actions you might take that would shift it more towards the top left and/or make it easier to implement.

There are no right answers.

In the example grid shown above I chose Option B — even though it was the most difficult to implement — because it also brought me the biggest upsides and the lowest 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.

When so much is changing in the world 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 create in yourself and your key stakeholders. That is what will make you antifragile in a time of change. And thinking through the upsides and downsides is a quick 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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