Only the paranoid survive

Only the paranoid survive

A couple of weeks ago, I delivered a keynote for a major player in the retail industry and my key message was “Only the paranoid survive”.  I indeed deeply believe that there is a lot of value in being paranoid in times of rapid and continuous change.  In fact, I’m not the only one who favours this idea.  Astronauts support it too... 

Picture this situation: would it be terrifying if you were plucked off the street, hustled into a rocket ship and told you were launching in three minutes and that one wrong move would kill yourself and everybody else?  Yes, it would definitely be freightening.  But not for astronauts.  They have been trained for years by multiple teams of experts who have helped them to think through how to handle just about every possible situation that could occur between launch and landing.

These experts specialize in devising bad-news scenarios for the astronauts to act out, over and over again.  They practice what they have to do when there is engine trouble, a computer meltdown, an explosion, etc. So they are essentially trained (and forced) to confront the idea of failure.  They have to study it, dissect it and tease apart all its components and consequences.  And they do that on a daily basis.  In this way, they have the best possible weapon against fear and failure: hard-won competence. 

Develop a new set of instincts
Their training pushes them to develop a new set of instincts: instead of reacting to danger with a fight-or-flight adrenaline rush, they are trained to respond unemotionally by immediately prioritizing threats and methodically seeking to defuse them.  Think of a fire.  A fire is one of the most dangerous things that can happen in a spaceship because there is nowhere to go.  Moreover, flames behave less predictably in weightlessness and are harder to extinguish.  

Astronauts practice the “warn, gather, work” protocol for responding to fire alarms.  NASA calls this “working the problem”: descending one decision tree after another, methodically looking for a solution.  Astronauts do this so frequently that it doesn’t just become second nature; it actually supplants their natural instincts. They become paranoid by definition and rehearsing for catastrophes makes them positive that they have the problem-solving skills to deal with tough situations. 

Too many people, however, in too many companies suffer from complacency. They believe that tomorrow will be a copy of today. They believe that success today is a guarantee for success tomorrow. Wake them up. Force them to be paranoid. Because only the paranoid survive…
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