Are You Above the Death Line?

Accountability Books


Key point: I have written a number of blogs regarding the disabling impact of fear, perhaps best captured by the acronym; False Expectations Appearing Real. However, I have not given enough attention to the positive counterbalance of applying constructive paranoia. Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen describe three key dimensions of productive paranoia in their recently published, best selling book Great by Choice. The research in this book applies to companies, but I believe the same lessons learned apply to us individually. Each of us benefit from having a framework to be constructively paranoid. What is your strategy for positive paranoia?

Leading Above the Death Line

Collins and team’s research pointed out that the most sustainable, successful companies know that they cannot reliably and consistently predict future events. They prepare obsessively – ahead of time, all the time – for what they cannot possibly predict. They assume that a series of bad events can wallop them in quick succession, unexpectedly and at any time. I think the same research implications apply to us in our personal careers. It’s the decisions and disciplines and shock absorbers we have in place, that matters most in determining whether we move ahead or falter when a storm hits…And one (or more) surely will. The authors contend that we need to be prudent in how we approach and manage risk, paying special attention to three categories of risk:

  1. Death Line risk (which can kill or severely damage the enterprise).
  2. Asymmetric risk (in which the downside dwarfs the upside).
  3. Uncontrollable risk (which cannot be controlled or managed).

They also suggest the following 3-pronged approach to prepare for a wallop:

  1. Build cash reserves and buffers to prepare for unexpected events and bad luck before they happen.
  2. Bound risk – Death Line riskasymmetric risk, and uncontrollable risk – and manage time-based risk.
  3.  Zoom out, then zoom in, remaining hyper-vigilant to sense changing conditions and respond effectively.

I really like the “zoom out, zoom in” analogy. Great companies and individuals, by choice, focus on their objectives and sense changes in their environment. They push for perfect execution and adjust to changing conditions. When they sense danger, they immediately zoom out to consider how quickly a threat is approaching and whether it calls for a change in plans. Then they zoom in, refocusing their energies into executing objectives.

Character move:

  1. Asses your readiness for an unexpected “storm” in your work life
  2. What are your reserves? (Not just cash reserves but skill reserves). What are the risks? How will you bound them?
  3. Think about how you would “zoom out” and then “zoom in” when hit by that personal tornado.
  4. Have your antennae up ALL the TIME! Build skill equity into yourself every day to make yourself more valuable. Work your network NOW. Waiting until you need help is too late. Have some cash AND skill reserves. (DO NOT FORGET to get long term disability insurance).

Positive paranoia in The Triangle,