Fear Is Not A Strategy


This article originally appeared in my Forbes Leadership column .

Can you see it? You’re on your 12th, 13th or 14th call with management and leadership at a company. They called you for help addressing a critical strategic imperative… but the meetings, questions and “careful study” seem to repeat endlessly.

You’re seeing fear disguised as a strategy. There’s less perceived risk from doing nothing than from doing something. But no one in their right mind will say that out loud, so the alternative is to meet, study, analyze and discuss.

There’s just one problem: fear is not a strategy.

I think we can all agree that the world is getting more complicated, the velocity of change is generally increasing, and so on. Yes, it’s hard to predict the future or be certain that your decisions will be the right ones. But “no decision” almost certainly guarantees failure.

In other words, your perception that doing nothing is safer than doing something is dead wrong. Except…

In the present state, your name isn’t solely attached to an outcome. If your company slides downhill, there will be lots of people to blame. But if the initiative you recommend or approve goes south, there will be you to blame.

So, risk-averse people hide in packs. They take comfort in large meetings with many departments and business units included.

All the while, the rest of us scratch our heads. We wonder how this well-respected company can move so slowly. We make the mistake of thinking that every decision-maker in the company wants what’s best for the company and its customers.

Sadly, this is not necessarily true. Sometimes, they want what’s best for them, just them, and in their minds, that translates to: no big decisions.

Yes, I know this has been a bit of a rant, but there is a purpose behind my ranting.

If you see decisions take forever within your company, get out… unless you are high enough to tell all those slow decision-makers something to the effect of…

“You have a right to take forever to make a decision. I don’t want to force you out of your comfort zone. You just can’t be a leader in this business if you need to move that slowly.”

Navigating the future of work is a risky business; it’s no place for the over-cautious.

You might also try these steps:

  1. If it takes more than four meetings to make a decision, agree in advance that the answer is no.
  2. Try separating decisions into smaller pieces, so that you can preserve the option to pursue a bigger plan without assuming all the risk upfront.
  3. Simultaneously act and continue to study the situation. This ties in nicely with point number two, because the cost of terminating a program mid-stage will be kept to modest levels until you have the certainty to make a full commitment.
  4. Make it riskier, in career terms, to do nothing.
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