The Paradox of Positive Versus Negative Thinking

As strategists we’re constantly caught in puzzling paradoxes. A fellow searching the Internet for information on Antifragility (which I wrote several posts about last year) emailed to ask if I’d summarize my view of what individuals and companies need to do to apply these newly defined (but not actually new) strategic principles. He promises to provide an overview of what he collects from all those he’s writing to. If that happens I will pass it on as well.

Then a McKinsey piece turned up on innovation that sort of fits, but at the same time raises one of those paradoxical puzzles.

What I wrote after a bit of reflection turned out to be boiling this rather complex concept down to one simple idea: anticipation. Here’s how I described it for him:

“I was explaining anticipation as ‘being prepared’ (like the boy scout motto) to a group of senior executives I was presenting leadership theory to. Just as Icreative emphasized being prepared, I picked up a laser pointer and it didn’t work, so I calmly continued talking while taking two batteries from a plastic bag and handing it and the batteries to someone in the front row to replace them. Point made – I’d anticipated the problem, was prepared as a result and therefore not bothered or interrupted much, just moving on.  That’s ‘antifragility’ in action.

In the same way, during busy work periods, I’d anticipate being tired, make plans for when and how to recuperate, when to get some sleep, etc., and make that a priority so I could continue at whatever frantic pace I needed to achieve. I also twice anticipated being fired (and later on had written my own severance arrangements that allowed me to early retire and start my own consulting business). At times I anticipated being promoted, so had read and thought ahead about what I would need to know. In high school I used to read ahead in every subject, sketch out answers and so never had homework to take home as it could all be done in class by the time the class got to it, etc., etc. I was never bowled over by workload or shock as some were in such situations.

We know from happiness studies that people who are severely injured (loss of limbs, etc.) return to almost the same level of happiness as before at about the six month mark in recovery (probably give or take a few months). If you anticipate that, I’m sure the weight of depression is lighter, the recovery on the faster side, etc., with your focus on how to restore your capabilities instead of dwelling on or ruminating about the losses. It’s sort of doing the ruminating before the event makes it shorter after. That’s antifragility.

In organization terms, I believe strongly in the same things. If a company anticipates the economy might turn bad at some point, it will keep some cash in reserve. It will hire more carefully so as not to over-staff and it will have plans to retrain people to keep them, to perhaps put everyone  on 4 day weeks so as not to layoff, etc. We can see few companies did this properly before 2008, but some did and they recovered faster and lost less in the crash.”

McKinsey’s piece on innovation echoes similar concepts – the need to put time into developing a culture that anticipates competitors will be innovating at a furious pace and getting your team members – all of them at all levels – into the mode of trying, failing sometimes and trying again so they are ready with viable new ideas to keep ahead.

The paradox is whether anticipation is gloomy or optimistic. Whether you feel anticipation is a gloomy approach (imagining the worst) or an optimistic approach (imaging great new options), the paradox of whether to take the pessimistic or the optimistic view is resolved in just one approach – anticipating realistically wherever possible what may happen and taking action now to get everyone up to speed on both types of scenarios, with positive solutions for both.

I’m just not sure you can apply one without the other. For those who wish never to hear a doubtful word, only positive ones as in The Secret, this may seem bad advice, but in my roles reflection on what’s possible, both good or bad, has always been essential.