Jim Collins on Paranoid Leaders
Bad things will happen. It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when. Even optimists knows it’s true.
Hi performing leaders, according to Jim Collins are “paranoid performers.” They’re always asking, “What if,” and then preparing for it. They think about and anticipate the day of “bad things.”
This “what if” is not the what if of positive possibility.
I hate what ifs. The more what ifs I have the less steam I feel to move forward. I prefer all in. I prefer, “We’re going all in and we’ll make it work.” What ifs distract. One option galvanizes and energizes. Or so I thought…
This morning I realized you can be paranoid and perform. It’s and not or. That’s the genius of Jim’s statement.
Finding tension between paranoia and performance:
Go all in where mission and vision are concerned. But, be paranoid when it comes to strategies, tactics, and methods. In other words, plan for the worst.
Adapting paves the way to success. Perseverance and determination are your enemy if they prevent adaptation.
The danger of determination:
My story is one of perseverance gone wrong. For years I mistakenly thought determination would take me where I wanted to go. Where it took me was continued mediocre results.
Determination coupled with adaptation takes you where you want to go.Persevering at wrong things isn’t a virtue, it’s foolishness. Adapt or die.Flexibility works as long as you keep ultimate goals in mind. Lose sight of the big picture and adapting becomes aimless wandering.
What role does paranoia (what if) play in your leadership?
How can leaders prevent paranoia from stalling progress?
This post is inspired by the presentation Jim Collins gave on 11/7/11 at the Elite Leadership Program in New York City.
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Good distinctions. The wisdom is in knowing when it’s time to adapt or go to plan B.
Indeed, one of the forgotten great business books is Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive.
In my businesses I was always “paranoid” but in a systematic way. During annual planning I would often lead my exec team through exercises asking them what they would do in the year ahead if they were the CEO of specific competitors. How would they attack us? How would they pitch against us? Where would they invest R&D dollars.
Although I hate traditional SWOT analysis, I also found it helpful to scenario plan the outrageous…what happens if all our clients switch to tablets this year? What happens if employment spikes to 15%? What happens if we get an order that is twice the size of last year’s biggest order?
Research has shown that in scenario planning, it’s not really the scenarios that count, but the process of going thinking through it as a team.
Kevin, I like the scenario exercise. The actual bad thing will never exactly match a scenario you envision, but as you point out, the value is that everyone learns to think in a way that lets the organization be very flexible and adaptive. Thinking skills are incredibly important and very difficult to train – this seems like a great technique.
Dan, couldn’t resist posting this little poem I wrote here about “What If’s”
Whatever works, that could be alright
Stop brooding about eventualities not even in sight
“But” you say “what if it goes wrong”
Well I say, just change the words of the song
Whatever works, whatever keeps you happy
Lighten up your mood, stop feeling so crappy
“What about the consequences, what if it doesn’t work out”
Why, I thought is your brain always turned inside out
Whatever works could be the best thing for you
And this final thought I will let you chew
But what if, whatever works, really turns out to be the ticket
For life isn’t always a plan on paper, so maybe you should take that and rip it !!
Army officers are taught to have a plan for the worst possible thing the enemy can do, and also for the most likely thing the enemy will do. Those are contingencies, though; the real plan is what you’re going to do.
The beauty of your advice today, Dan, is once you’ve done a rough plan for potential badness, it seems much less threatening, and clears your mind of worry. That lets you put your juice into proactivity.
Side note: I prefer realism to paranoia. Giving in to paranoia can have you jumping at shadows and never going outdoors. Realism says there’s bad stuff out there, but if I take that into account it won’t surprise me.
Sorry, meant to post this in the main body. Not sure how I got it here, except I wanted to tell Imelda that her poem made me smile.
Thanks Greg, and you know I think your right about the Realist Leader …….. I don’t reckon Paranoia is the right diagnosis at all …… think that label needs to be changed ….. nice one, cheers .
I think the biggest reason we are scared of what if is the fear of failure and following ridicule.
If there is no fear, any what if case is a learning opportunity.
With perseverance we get better with every what-if. Infact people take pride in exploring what-if questions
I would be a paranoid Leader, I just love What If’s …… 🙂
What if you just embraced
The things in life you didn’t like
What if you told yourself
In this living today I will find delight
What if you changed your perspective
Put the shoe on the other foot
Turned a blind eye to all that is wrong
And allowed your mind to view a different route
What if the things that caused you frustration
And made you feel you had no control
Could be handled in another way
So you didn’t feel like your power had been stole
What if you just decided
Today you really wouldn’t worry so much
You’d let go of the reins, all of the pains
And no longer hold the position of judge
What if then you do find
When you really, really finally let go
The things that you were holding on to
You actually were never in control
And what if just by doing this
Your mind begins to relax and unwind
And the perspectives that you gain
Open eyes that were truly blind 🙂
In the safety world, “What If’s” are the mantra that keep people safe.
Im always thinking what ifs but I try and keep them as a possitive thing, I think they are fundinmental to innovation
I am often the what if person or as I prefer “devil’s advocate” when a new idea is being rolled out. I don’t do it to stall the idea, but to make people think the process all the way through. Sometimes this helps us prefer for contingencies we had not previously thought about, but once in a while, it has the benefit of making the idea bloom even more, as people realize the potential of the idea presented from a different angle.
I thing a healthy dose of imagination & back up planning is essential to any new venture.
Sorry should be “prepare” for contingencies & “think” a healthy dose
One person’s paranoia is another’s vigilance.
To operate effectively, we need a construct that has outer boundaries. Vulnerability analysis, in any realm, helps mark the the most likely outer boundaries and those that also may be inside and are more likely to occur. How you do the analysis can be the ‘fun’ part. Do a table top plan for a negative event, then challenge the team to make it worse…and worse. Bring it! Go to the edge of absurd and beyond if you have time.
And to balance the process, plan for a positive event and add on and make it better and better. Put on the rose colored glasses. (Sometimes this does help revision why you do what you do as well.)
You then have the most likely ends of the continuum, both of which probably won’t happen. Prioritize the negatives whether they are likely to occur and then chip away at the negatives to mitigate/minimize their impact. There are all sorts of great sites out there there that do the more concrete vulnerability analysis. BTW-the more folks you engage, over time, the more invested they become and often they may know better than you what is most likely to occur.
I agree with you in principle Doc. I don’t particularly care for the context of paranoia and prefer healthy vigilance and constant ongoing evaluation. What ifs are a part of life and to deny that is fraught with danger and speculation. The important decisions we make both personal and professional need to have an empirical and analytical basis coupled with experience both past and present. No one can predict the future and one has to be careful in attaching too many what ifs for fear of paralysis but we can usually rank order and prioritize them and that is where I think intuition, creativity and basically “gut feelings” come into play.
I am in the midst of Jim Collin’s latest book “Great by Choice” and the principles espoused are solid albeit the terminology can at times be frightening. Paranoia to me invokes the sense of fear, while structured observation (i.e. your “vigilance) leads more to courage and to action rather than anxiety and reaction. Understanding that chaos will ultimately always lead to order and that environments in constant flux constantly challenge that order is crucial in today’s market place regardless of industry sector.
The usual mechanistic and Newtonian principles of the left brain are no longer effective in today’s world where the new currency of doing business is the social affective attributes of courage, trust, humility, integrity and honesty. Our staff is the new logic and only by involving and empowering them can the sum be greater than the parts.
Companies that can achieve that solidarity, vision, and cohesion will trample the competition. Preparation, astute observation, guided execution, and team driven results can catapult any group to success but sustainability will always hinge on the qualities of the “players.”
Sorry for the long winded answer, thank God one of my team mates is watching the “wall.” 🙂
Seth G has some great dialogues about our lizard brain which may also fit Dan’s approach and the left/right brain workings.
I suppose we could also go down the ‘what if’ path with a number of other variations that also cause at least partial paralysis…’we tried that before’, the more categoric, ‘we don’t do that here’, ‘why try, they don’t listen to us’,… however I think Dan was advocating that we convert that ‘attention to detail–aka paranoia’ to gumby-istic moxie.
Hi Doc. Yes I think you are right about Dan’s intent and I understand it now. Seth G does have a lot of dialogues regarding the lizard brain and the forces of resistance. My problem and perhaps others is being able to differentiate when it is resistance tugging at my pants or the forces that are trying to “kick” me in the pants to move on. Cheers and thanks, 🙂
What role does paranoia (what if) play in your leadership?
There’s a very real chance that “what-if-ing” cost me a leadership role. By being so concerned about what “could” go wrong, I allowed myself to remain paralyzed which compromised my ability to be productive. I do find myself doing a better job of asking the flip side of “What if I do ____ and it doesn’t work?” The flip side is “What if I do _____ and it WORKS?” That opens up possibilities instead of shutting them down.
I think paranoid is the wrong word. Part of being flexible and adaptable is recognizing that things change–for the better or worse–and if you’ve anticipated what can go wrong you are better able to quickly adapt to it. Like defensive driving.
Leaders should use opportunity cost to take a more constructive look at the “what if.” The “what if” mind frame is taxing for some and can inhibit innovation. I think the what if scenario is really trying to deal with fear. For me personally I played the what if game for a long time, then realized I could say what if about anything (what is the air was sucked out of our atmosphere?) after I lost my best friend. You could go to no ends. Thus, I have ditched the what if and whatever happens I try to learn and grow from it.
Agreed! And a great reminder of the value of that practice and strength … Thank you both
Forethought vs. Hindsight