Day 5 of 14 - "Hope for the best. Expect the worst...
Life is a play. We're unrehearsed." - Mel Brooks (1997)
This is #5.
Many of us have probably heard of a method called "visualization" which, according to Wikipedia, is "any technique for creating images, diagrams, or animations to communicate a message". However, I'm not talking about visualizing messages so that others can understand them better, the type of visualization I am referring to can be described as "seeing the goal as already complete in your mind's eye".
Oftentimes, when I want to achieve something, let's say I want to get that 10 km run done in the morning, I visualize the figures on the treadmill showing "10,02 km, 45:07 min" (or something similar). I visualize the exhaustion, the slight burn in the legs and I try to focus on the positive feelings that I usually get after exercising. The same counts for long drives in the car or bus rides, the process of writing an exam or having an unpleasant meeting and many other situations. Visualizing the positive outcome and experiencing that positive feeling before even starting usually helps me to get things going.
But there is a different kind of visualization that I never really thought about too much until recently: "premeditatio malorum" as the old Greek stoic philosophers called it, also known as "premeditation of evils", "negative visualization" or "inversion".
I found a good explanation of what inversion meant to the stoic philosophers on this website: https://jamesclear.com/inversion:
The Stoics believed that by imagining the worst case scenario ahead of time, they could overcome their fears of negative experiences and make better plans to prevent them. While most people were focused on how they could achieve success, the Stoics also considered how they would manage failure.
This process basically consisted of asking the following questions: What could go wrong? How would things look like if they did? And how do I prepare for it in the best possible way today?
I want to share one way I have unconsciously applied inversion throughout most of my professional career. I most likely developed this habit after - in an early stage of my career - my boss tried to make a joke by telling me in front of my colleagues that "the distance between one sandtrap and the next is one Marcus Lycke".
As a consequence, most of the time I have tried to avoid failure instead of trying to achieve success in critical situations. In hindsight, I think this form of inversion helped me to focus on being very efficient in avoiding common mistakes, for example in preparing a presentation for a board meeting or hosting an important workshop. Knowing the contents of what I was about to present, gathering the required information and important messages, was never the problem. Problems occurred by not putting enough effort in thinking about and ultimately avoiding mistakes. So I asked myself instead of "Do we have all the core messages?" questions like “Which parts of our presentations would alienate our clients?” (e.g. wording or visualization of information), and instead of asking myself "How can I outshine my competition and be the best leader?" I asked myself “What would someone do each day if they were a terrible leader?”.
Billionaire investor Charlie Munger once told a bunch of students this: “What do you want to avoid?” he asks. “Such an easy answer: sloth and unreliability. If you’re unreliable it doesn’t matter what your virtues are. You’re going to crater immediately. Doing what you have faithfully engaged to do should be an automatic part of your conduct. You want to avoid sloth and unreliability.” (USC Law Commencement Speech by Charlie Munger, 2007)
This type of inversion can be applied to many aspects of daily life: "What happens if I'm not going to do my daily cardio?", "What are the negative outcomes of eating that bar of chocolate?", "What distracts me from being more focused and productive?". It can also be applied to many aspects of corporate life: "What happens if our company would be less innovative?", "What has to happen to make our company less successful?", "How can an employee fail in executing this process?"...
Thinking about the opposite of what you want to achieve might feel counter-intuitive at first, but visualizing the negative outcome of everything from a simple action to a complicated process can be a strong tool to identify challenges and points of failure so you can develop a plan to prevent them ahead of time.
I want to end this article with one piece of advice for project managers that - if I'd have picked it up earlier in my career - would possibly have helped me a lot. It's an example of how to do a "Premortem" or a "killing the company" approach that I've found on James Clear's website - it has originally been designed by psychologist Gary Klein:
One of my favorite applications of inversion is known as a [...] Premortem. It is like a Premeditation of Evils for the modern day company. It works like this: Imagine the most important goal or project you are working on right now. Now fast forward six months and assume the project or goal has failed. Tell the story of how it happened. What went wrong? What mistakes did you make? How did it fail? In other words, think of your main goal and ask yourself, “What could cause this to go horribly wrong?”
If you are interested in more details, here are some of the sources that I have used to compile this article:
And here are some of the books I can recommend written by above mentioned authors:
Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday (Amazon Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/2JjJbgq)
Atomic Habits by James Clear (Amazon Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/39okbiM)