Thinking the Unthinkable

The tragedy in Connecticut makes it difficult to write about finding what can go right on our projects.  It directs our attention to what can go wrong.  Horribly wrong.  It hurts to think about it.  I’m writing today with all those affected in my thoughts.

Sandy Hook makes us think about our own families and our hopes for them.  We hope that they will be wildly successful even if they face uncertainties and risks.  We hope the same for our own endeavors and projects.  How should we address those risks that are exceedingly rare and horrible?  How much should we address opportunities that could have outcomes more perfect than we should hope for?  Do we spend enough time on the ends of the bell curve?


I started writing this post right after Super Storm Sandy.  I remember a pervasive sound bite that went something like:

I never thought it could be this bad.

But sometimes it is.  Maybe it’s only a 1 in five million chance, but these things happen every year.  Those tiny fifth and sixth standard deviations from the mean are improbable, but inevitable.  We limit the time we spend on the far ends of the bell curve.  We take steps to make the improbable horrible risks less probable, but have to realize that whatever we do, they will still happen to one in five million of us.  So, we also take steps to prepare a response.

I read or heard (I wish I could remember where in all the coverage) someone say that the thing to focus on in a tragedy is the response.  Therein is the good.  It’s what can go right.  The really horrible thing would be if no one responded.

I have to try to turn this around.  There’s the other end of the bell curve.  The end where things go perfectly, far beyond our expectations.  How often do we get to say:

I never thought it would go this well.

It could be more often.

I don’t think we spend enough time on the positive far end of the bell curve.  It doesn’t make the news.  We dismiss it.  It isn’t realistic.  We should think about it.  Even if it’s improbable, pursuing it changes us.

We could start by thinking about perfect outcomes at the start of every endeavor.  What opportunities do we have to get as close as possible to perfect outcomes?  We will never know unless we ask.  Start with questions like:

  • What are the most perfect outcomes we could imagine?
  • How will our organization and ourselves be improved?
  • What do we do now, even if it’s rare, that seems perfect and we wish it could happen all the time?
  • What could help bring about the outcomes we are imagining?
  • What steps can we take to start on this path?

This might seem like tilting at windmills, but consider Six Sigma.  Manufacturing organizations realized that by continually improving they could approach perfection.  Perfection meant elimination of all defects from production.  It meant achieving a rate of less than 3.4 defects per million parts produced.  It meant striving toward six standard deviations from the mean – to the very end of the bell curve on the good end.  It was an unrealistically perfect target at first; but it was achieved.  It started with defining what it meant to be perfect and believing it was possible.

Perfect outcomes don’t define our scope, they enhance it.  Look for what could be possible and add it to the scope where we have the capacity to respond.

The idea is to dream of the very end of the bell curve and respond to that dream.  Where would we be if people stopped doing that?  If people stopped dreaming and responding?

Dream about perfect outcomes for your project.  Talk about them with your team, your clients, your stakeholders.  And then find a way to respond.  It creates hope and inspires.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright 2012 Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk”

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