This is the second in a series on becoming more innovative. The first blog focused on the culture, and this one and the next focus on you.

While creating a culture of positive what-ifs and why-nots is crucial, the success of that transition starts with the leader being a positive role model.

If you are resistant to new ideas and are overly risk-averse, so too will be your peers and employees. People will follow the leader, for better or worse.

Let’s take a look at why it is important to not get stuck in the negative “what-ifs” and some practical things you can do to shift your mindset.

Fear-driven decision-making makes really small the box in which we and our staff operate. It reduces the choices we have. It prevents innovation because it causes us to focus on problems and risks, not possibilities. It also tends to limit our exposure, because the what-ifs hold us back from volunteering for critical projects and making the big presentations. Also, our brand becomes one of playing it safe, which usually inhibits higher-level leadership.

As you rise in an organization or when you lead a small one, visioning is a critical skill, and if you don’t see and go after positive what-ifs, your vision will be stunted and narrow-sighted.

I find most fear-driven leaders are very controlling, which leads to micromanagement. Employees can easily tell when they aren’t trusted, and that quickly leads to disengagement. And as with all relationships, restoring trust takes a lot of time, so why not start on the right foot?

You may have heard of the concept of a growth versus a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset believes, “Once I’ve achieved a goal, I am good enough.” A growth mindset looks for continual self-improvement. By asking positive “What if we did x” questions, we keep ourselves in a growth mindset.

So let’s take a look at what to do about this!

Start noticing if your “what-if” statements tend to be negative or positive.

That suggests risk aversion or innovation. If you tend to fall in the negative category, be careful of saying “Oh, I’m just being careful or prudent versus being a dreamer.” And if you tend to see the positive what-ifs, be careful of writing off the others as “roadblock.” (Note — I can be guilty of this myself!)

If all you see are positive what-ifs, the possibilities, then you probably need to partner with someone who can help you identify impediments to implementation and solutions. There needs to be a balance, but try to lean more heavily on “Why not do it?!”

If you tend to see the negatives, check out my next blog on how to reverse this trend (or how to help someone you know who lives in this cycle of negative why-nots.)

Get Unstuck in the Moment.

Any time you find yourself asking, “What if this happens?” or “What about X?,” you need to also inquire at a deeper level about the specific concern:

  • How likely is that to happen?
  • What assumptions must be true for that to occur?
  • How can I minimize the risk?
  • If my fear plays out, what are the potential consequences, in terms of cost or wasted time?
  • What is the scope of the fallout? One person? Fifty? Our most critical customers?
  • Will there be time to conduct damage control?
  • If we tried it in the past, what were the results? What has changed since then?
  • What if the fear doesn’t play out: What are the positive outcomes?

What I find interesting is, people usually completely bypass the last two questions. I was meeting with a leader fearful of making some hiring decisions lest he make a mistake. I asked how many people he has hired in the past. Answer: Oh, dozens. Then, I asked how many were failures. Answers: Oh, good point: None.

Record history/read history.

Most of our fears never play out. I find it funny how God knew this about us, so “fear not” is the most common command in the Bible — it appears 365 times! One for every day of the year.

I’ve asked clients to start writing down all the “what-ifs” that almost hold them back or have held them back and then later to look back and see how many fears came true. It’s almost always zero. Journaling and remembering your history of successes — and all the fears that are never realized — is a powerful way to prove to yourself that you can spend much less time on the negative what-ifs and should start saying, “Why not? Let’s do it!”

Your challenge: When you or someone else has a negative “what-if” moment, try the questions above to break free.


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    Loriana Sekarski is founder and president of BONSAI, a consulting company that transforms leaders (and businesses) into the best version of themselves. As a leadership coach, Loriana teaches leaders how to hone soft skills, spur workplace engagement, and achieve untapped levels of potential. Outside of BONSAI, Loriana serves as an adjunct professor at Washington University’s graduate student program. Additionally, she's fine-tuning her passion project, TakeFlight, a division of BONSAI that launches organizations, churches, and marriages to boldly live out their purpose by leveraging their strengths to achieve their God-given destiny. TakeFlight has just developed Revealing Hidden Shackles, an innovative curriculum that examines domestic violence within the Christian community.