Growth Insights for CEOs

What's The Worst That Could Happen?

Posted by The Chief Outsider



"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." The benefits of optimism and pessimism in marketing

Winston Churchill said that many years ago. He believed in being an optimist. But sometimes, it is important to be a pessimist, or at least if you are an unfailing optimist, to have a pessimist on your team. When deciding on new projects or deciding on how to spend precious marketing dollars, you first need the optimistic side of your brain. Be creative, think of new ideas, explore the possibilities. Then look at the other side. When embarking on a new marketing venture, always ask, what could go wrong?  What are the difficulties we might face? Think like the pessimist.

Explore the “Dark Side”

Early in my career, I had a boss and mentor who always had his team put together a “lessons learned” or “post-mortem” after each project. We would assess what went right and what went wrong so that we could duplicate the right and learn from the wrong for the next implementation. What I found, over and over again, was that when we reviewed what went wrong, invariably there would be people around the table, nodding thoughtfully and remarking, "I knew that idea wouldn't work" or "I suspected that was the wrong approach." And I would think, "Then why didn't you say something?"  

Before a project begins, have a meeting, call it the pre-mortem or the curmudgeon's club. 

Everyone at the meeting is asked to think through what might go wrong. Generate discussion by first asking people to finish—in writing—the rest of a sentence that reads something like this: "If anything should go wrong with this implementation, in your opinion it would be because..." Then everyone is asked to share those written answers out loud. Put them up on a white board and discuss strategies to ensure that they don't happen or how to mitigate the damage if they do happen. Think like an optimist that problems can be solved, or as Churchill also said, "Failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts." This technique of asking people to think independently first, then writing their answers down, then sharing them is invaluable. I have often found so much insight comes out from the quieter members of the group that helps insure success of the project and those “naysayers” who are so good in hindsight, learn to predict more accurately both successes and problems.

Be more the tortoise than the hare

Whatever the idea, I have usually found that thoughtful, steady implementation with time to experiment and reassess along the way works out more frequently than splashy, expensive, rapid implementations. I adhere to Eric Reis “Lean Start-up” philosophy of developing, experimenting and constantly iterating. He calls it the MVP: Minimum Viable Product: Check to see what works before going forward. Most companies start with a small budget so they do have to assess and reassess where to spend their limited funds. However, even when there is a large budget, act like it is small and don’t waste your time or your company’s money.  

A jack of all trades, a master of none

Another issue that many companies face is that they have a potentially great product or service that could be attractive to many different customers. (This doesn't sound like a problem, does it?) It becomes one when the company tries to be all things to all people. They don’t want to say no to any potential revenue source. This is a mistake. Even if a product is equally attractive to many markets, decide to specialize initially in just a couple of them. It is better to spend your time and money going deep into a market and conquering it, than going for broad appeal to everyone. Especially nowadays, people like to feel that they are part of something special, a community, rather than a mass market.

So, wear both the optimist and the pessimist's hat or at least have people on your team who reflect both points of view. 


What about you? What are you better at?

Topics: CEO Marketing Strategy, Corporate Strategy, Marketing Implementation