Do you often find yourself thinking, “What if this improbable thing happens?” Or “What if that terrible result happens?”

Using “What if…” scenarios to guide our behaviors is tricky. Sometimes it can be the safe way to go. As in, “I can’t run out into the street. What if there’s a bus coming?” But often, we let our "What if..." questions push us in the wrong directions.

Thinking too big

How many times have you let yourself fall into the trap of making a decision based on something that might happen vs. something that is likely to happen?

If you’re buying a house, do you set your criteria based on the number of people who will be living there on a regular basis and the space you need day-to-day? Or do you get caught up in potential scenarios like, “What if I decide I need a home office someday?” Or “What if the entire family decides to visit at once?”

Before you know it, you’ve gone from a three-bedroom rambler to a six bedroom homestead on five acres.

Planning based on outliers may serve you well— if and when those things actually happen. In the meantime, you’ll be saddled with that extra “What if…” square footage to furnish, maintain, and, most importantly, pay for.

By shooting for the moon, your “What if…” scenario is actually weighing you down.  

Thinking too small

And yet plenty of people let their “What if…” worries take them in the opposite direction. What if we move in and we don’t like it? What if our couch doesn’t fit in the new living room? What if our current landlord gets upset? What if changing addresses turns out to be a real pain? What if my mother-in-law doesn’t like it?

Worrying about consequences isn’t silly, you just have to be sure you’re focusing on the right ones.

You could have some very legitimate concerns about moving: Are we overextending ourselves? Does this property need too much work? Are we adding to our assets or just our stress levels? Is the long-term outlook for this investment positive or negative?

Of course, these issues should be considered as part of the process. But at the end of the day, if you’re too concerned about making changes that you know need to happen simply because you’re afraid to manage the process, you’re never going to be able to move forward.

What if you found that perfect balance?

Yes, you can examine possible outcomes as a way to determine doomsday scenarios. You can also get carried away planning for remote possibilities. But evaluating “What if…” scenarios is a necessary part of life. And essential to running a successful organization.

No business decision is going to be 100% black and white, but there are ways to work effectively within the shades of grey.

Some questions to ask yourself during the “What if… “ process:

  • Does this scenario have a high or low probability of coming to fruition?
  • Is it based purely on fear? Or is there data and experience to back it up?
  • Are we assuming a best or worst case scenario without consulting key stakeholders?
  • Can we manage expectations so that it’s less likely to play out?
  • Are there ways we can mitigate any negative fallout?
  • Could we simply be using this concern as an excuse to say no?
    • If so, why?
    • Are there other issues we should be looking at instead?
  • Will creating a plan to manage the change make the transition easier?
  • Are we underestimating ourselves, our customers, or our team?

Making big decisions can be difficult and complicated. Using your team and analytical skills to assess multiple scenarios and outcomes can enhance the process— or send everyone into analysis paralysis. Make sure you’re asking the right questions and focusing on critical outcomes.

The key to doing this successfully is determining which “What if…” scenarios matter, which ones are moving you in the wrong direction, and which ones are merely holding you back.

Photo by  Damir Khabirov

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