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The unspoken scenario

WTC lights sister72 flickrConsider for a moment what would happen if you lost everything you own and all your money. That awful scenario is, of course, possible in any of our lives. And no one wants to dwell on such a thought. It would be hideous.

But try out the scenario. What would you do that first morning? You and your family? What would you do first? What resources, deep down, would you still have to try to restart your life?

You would not have lost everything. You would have your knowledge, your skills, your intelligence, and you would have the love and regard of your friends and family. You would have your ambition and your drive to find a way to live. You would have positive thoughts amidst the negative, or you would have try to. You could find those positive thoughts and put them to work to build something new for yourself. This is what I see time and again when a natural disaster hits people, taking everything they own. 

This story of disaster is your unspoken scenario. And in working with clients, I can often detect that they have an unspoken scenario, and sometimes they can too.

It is, of course, far from their minds that they'd like to spend time exploring the unspoken scenario. They assume that if the disaster happens, nothing will be the same anyway. So why dwell  on it? Though they of course resist shining a light on the possibility, organizations can and do fail, and disappear forever. Or they get his with a massive shock that is a thoroughgoing disaster.

In the 9-11 attacks, the brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald lost over two-thirds of its workforce in the World Trade Center collapse. But the firm still exists, and it's perhaps stronger than ever. Cantor Fitzgerald faced a sort of unspoken scenario. The firm likely would never have sat down to explore the "what if" of such a disaster. But what if they had? They could have exercised their thinking on how the organization would reroute its massive load of brokerage transactions, using its other offices and infrastructure to reroute the load. They could have thought about and gotten stronger in building the resilience and durability of their mission and culture. CEO Howard Lutnick chanced to be out of the office on 9-11 and survived the attacks. The strength of his vision and determination was a difference maker in their recovery. Perhaps Cantor Fitzgerald had this sort of resilience anyway. The firm brought its trading back on line within a week of the attacks.

What is the unspoken scenario in your organization? It could be a lot of things. Is there an existential threat out there that no one want's to talk about? or at least, that they are reluctant to get into in detail? Often there is. It may be a scenario of doom or a big change that changes everything. But should you explore it? You should.

The unspoken scenario may be an easily-thought-of elephant in the room, or it may be an idea so "out there" that no one is talking about it, but they should. There is power even in an extreme bad news scenario. Why? Because you can look at potential futures where all bets are off, where everything changes, and sometimes, you can see a pathway forward. And the organizations that practice that thinking have a better chance of success.

What you can do. Get a small group of thoughtful colleagues together, and brainstorm your unspoken scenarios. Reflect on them and why they are 1). threats to your existence, and 2). not being discussed. Consider if there would be value in convening a larger conversation, or playing them out in more thorough story building and analysis. You may need and want to do these things quietly–even very quietly, to not alarm people, but involve your strategic leaders in frank discussion of true threats, and, quite likely you will discover more about your strengths and how you can find opportunities in what look like insurmountable challenges.

Image: sister72 via Flickr, Creative Commons attribution license.

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Jack Uldrich April 24, 2014, 9:57 am


    As always, a thoughtful and insightful article. I do something similar with my clients, only I call it a "pre-mortem". I ask them to envision that it is 5 or 10 years in the future and their business no longer exists. I then ask them to brainstorm on possible scenarios that drove them to "extinction." The conversation turns decidely more positive when discussing ways to avoid "extinction."



  • John Mahaffie April 24, 2014, 10:06 am

    Great insights Jack, thanks. I think that’s a powerful notion, sobering, but empowering too.


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