If this then that, and if that, then what?

On thinking things through all the way to the end

Everyone who knows me well knows there’s one rule I live by. They know it because I’m always saying it. So often it’s probably their least favorite phrase. But I’ll keep saying it:

If this then that, and if that, then what?

It could be summed up as simply considering the second order effects, but I find getting verbose about it makes it stick and makes it easier to apply.

What does it mean? In everything you do, before you do it, consider: If I do this, what will happen? And if that happens, what will happen next?

Often we stop at part one. “If I lower my prices, I’ll get more customers.” Easy.

But what happens next?

Well, maybe I’ll get known as the discount provider and then I can’t move upmarket. Maybe I’ll erode my profit margins and get busier than ever, but be broke because I’m unprofitable. Maybe next I’ll end up needing to hire staff to help me service the work that I’m not making any money on in the first place.

We think this way all the time when we’re worried, or if we’re trying to get out of something. It’s easy to imagine, to catastrophize, when we want to avoid something scary or painful. We can spiral and imagine every possible worst-case scenario.

But when we’re excited, when we want to do something, we almost never think it through all the way to the end.

And that’s where we get ourselves into trouble. We jump in with both feet only to realize the pool was too shallow. We charge ahead, only to find out we were completely unprepared.

Action without thought is panic, not drive. Doing without thinking isn’t hustle, it’s haste.

So how do you slow down and think things through? Build yourself routines and mechanisms that can become natural next steps whenever you’re making big decisions in life or in business.

When I’m working on a strategy for a client, I force myself to stop and run it through a few popular frameworks to see what I’ve missed.

Blue Ocean Strategy:
Are we adding to confusion and complexity in our industry, leaving yet more room for a new entrant to charge a premium by doing less? Have we missed a simple opportunity to do the same?

The Innovator’s Dilemma:
Are we moving too far up-market and away from what consumers need, or have we started to ignore or downplay a potential disruptive innovation?

Hart’s Grand Strategy:
Are we about to try to compete exactly where our competitors expect us to? Are we doing exactly what they might hope we would do?

Porter’s Five Forces:
Have we considered how our buyers and suppliers can put price pressure on us if we take this action? Are we adding to industry rivalry? Are we making ourselves too easily substitutable?

The Tragedy of the Commons:
Are we instigating a race to the bottom, or are we harming our media environment or industry as a whole?

After that, it’s important to run everything through a premortem. Essentially, you use this thought experiment:

“It’s a year in the future, and the project is finished. And it was an outright failure–what happened?”

This gives you the opportunity to let yourself explore all the negative thoughts you’d been ignoring. It lets you say things like, “The logo kind of looked like genitals and people mocked us,” or “The language was more problematic than we realized.” And then you address those issues now, before it’s too late.

In fact, I run my strategies through three filters: What if it was a failure, what if it was a disaster, and what if it was an outright catastrophe? What happened?

And it’s just as important to plan for success. “The project was a huge, smashing success—what happened next?” Are we prepared for the influx of leads? Are we ready for the customer service calls? Can our systems handle the load?

It’s true that you can over-analyze and over-think. You can think so much that you simply never actually do. But that’s no excuse for not thinking at all. That’s a call for balance and for accepting that, eventually, you just need to put it out into the world and see what happens. “The universe rewards action, because action yields information,” as Blair Enns says.

Don't think instead of doing. But always, always, always think before you do.

Because “if this then that” isn’t enough. It’s not even halfway there. It’s just the beginning.

The important part is: if that, then what?