Select Page

Worry As Your Advantage

Take your leadership to the next level with the art of productive paranoia

I remember the first time I heard the term “productive paranoia,” made popular by Jim Collins’ best-selling book “Great by Choice.” I felt like I had been vindicated. I’ve always had a penchant for seeing what could go wrong—my dad even called me “OSHA” when I was in high school.

But Collins, a renowned business author, was suggesting something new—that worrying could actually be a competitive business advantage.

Have you ever considered the degree to which your worry about what might happen contributes to your success as a business leader? Collins suggests that it is pretty important.

In fact, Productive Paranoia is one of three sides to his “triad of core behaviors,” along with Fanatic Discipline and Empirical Creativity. But what distinguishes the productively paranoid from the Chicken Littles?

“Have you ever considered the degree to which your worry about what might happen contributes to your success as a business leader?”

One aspect of productive paranoia means you are always asking about the worst-case scenario. This includes not just what is probable but also what is possible. Probable events are those events that you can prove with data and statistics. Possible events are often outliers and are perhaps unlikely to occur.

But your experience and intuition demand that you do not strike them from consideration. It can be uncomfortable to push back and ask “what if?” … but remember, you have Collins in your corner.

It takes discipline to ask “what if?” on a regular basis. Let’s break the process down into a few easy starter questions. When confronted with an important decision, ask:

  • What is the worst-case scenario?  This is not always as simple as it sounds. You need to get the right people around the table and prod a little. Worst-case scenarios are often two or more really bad things happening at the same time. Your team knows what worries them; you just need to get their nightmares out of their heads and onto the table to discuss as a team.
  • Do we have the best available information? Critical decisions must be made with current, relevant, and detailed information. Does the decision require special data, a particular staff member, or a subject matter expert? Don’t move ahead if you know you are missing a key piece of the puzzle.
  • If the worst-case scenario happens, what will that mean for the business? It is well worth your time to write out the various consequences and validate them with your leadership team. Are there outcomes you are positive will occur? Are there outcomes that are less certain? Refer again to the question above and drill down while getting your hands on the best possible information.
  • What can we do now to reduce the effects of the worst-case scenario, if it occurs?  This is where the magic happens. It would be great to discover a particular action that fully prevents the worst-case scenario from coming to pass, but this rarely happens. So, what can be done instead now to minimize the chances of it happening or lessen its impact? Write out your ideas and rank them according to effort and cost. You might find you have a few high-value actions within reach.

What if asking “what if?” could be a competitive advantage for you and your organization? With a little structure and discipline, you are on the road to being one of Collins’ “10X” leaders—not Chicken Little worrying that the sky is falling.

The world and the economy today demand that organizations employ productive paranoia—because sometimes the sky really does fall.

When it comes to protecting your business from disruptions and disasters, what is the single biggest challenge or frustration you are having right now?