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 information and without knowing how things are going to turn out.

One way to do this is by following our purpose and values. Another is to learn from our past, our future, or from people we admire. And a third way is to find more opportunities in the situation and then choose whatever most inspires us to long to make it happen.

If none of these approaches brings clarity then there is also another, more analytical, approach.

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

Then remind yourself of the most important factors that define the context for 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 quickly 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 needed and available?

Thinking through your priorities like this might already enable you to choose between your options. 

If not, then the best option for you will be provided by the best balance between these competing priorities. This might not be your ‘perfect’, ‘ideal world’ solution but it will be the best mix that is available to you now. And finding that mix will 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 might bring?
    (Then rank these overall as “High, Very High, Low, or Very Low”)
  • How likely or achievable are these and how easy will they 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 might bring?
    (Then rank these overall as “High, Very High, Low, or Very Low”)

Again, just thinking through these questions might tell you which option you prefer.

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

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


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 which combinations of upsides and downsides you prefer to avoid and which combination you choose to move forward with.

In the example shown above, I chose Option B even though this was the most difficult to implement. This was because it 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 in this particular situation. That is why it is important for you to review the ‘context’ questions first. And then the final choice for the best mix of upsides and downsides is up to you.

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 the people around you.

In an imperfect world, getting clear about this is yet another way to make 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?

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

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