The drawbacks of living on the edge

Lessons learned from watching the “fiscal cliff” unfold

Going to the very end of things is sometimes needed, sometimes a thrill and sometimes a risk.

You know the feeling when you walk up to a cliff and look over? Or the safe risk of going over the rapids, or just skiing down the faster trail? I think it’s part of our human nature, part of our programming. But when we go over the rapids, we usually have a guide whose job it is to make sure we are safe.

Having just passed through the recession, and avoided another one, many of us have gone to the precipice of matters. In many of our organizations, we have had tough discussions about what to do and how to approach issues.

If we were honest with ourselves, we likely made some tough decisions and became increasingly thoughtful about what to do. We saw the precipice and went around it. It seems that human nature and the institutions built on it rely somewhat on going to the end before deciding.

Winston Churchill once said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.” The best recent example is the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

The blame for this recent event does not matter because the process of “politics” is a complex social dynamic that requires the alignment of people around something important, once we all recognize its importance.

Until we adapt new and better ways to approach that social dynamic, we will always go to the cliff’s edge. Only when we look down and feel that sensation in our stomach will we step back and make another plan.


Worst-case scenario


In the future, we will improve these social dynamics and therefore improve the decision-making progress.

There are many good examples of business success mostly associated with methods to maximize culture and social relationships. Some local examples include Dyn and Hypertherm, and some national examples include Google and Starbucks. They are successful because they are thoughtful about what they do, and they avoid the precipice.

These are all highly social companies, and they are working for each other rather than the thrill. What has been going on too long in Washington is that they forgot to work for each other, and for us. Eventually we will get to the Washington Cliff and will begin to see some social dynamic improvements. The risks associated with our fiscal health and safety will be acted upon, but why must we wait for the worst-case scenario to act?

To avoid future precipices, people responsible for decision-making use some basic practices:

 • Visualize the end result: Intentions we make will come true, as long as we can articulate them honestly. Good decision-makers visualize what they want, and stay focused on it.

 • Understand stakeholders: Know who is involved, who cares about the outcome and bring them into consideration. Even those who intuitively seem to be working against you will have a stake, and need to be part of the solution. If we approach every problem as war against another faction, we will always be at war and nothing will ever get done.

 • Study best practices: I hate to break the news, but there are very few examples of original thought. If you’re seeking a solution to a problem, someone has already been through it, and they likely documented it. Use these examples as creative starting points and your problem and solution will become crystal clear.

 • Build in flexibility: Approaching the precipice will include some risk, so create some alternative positions. Also, keep your mind open to new flex points as they become obvious.

 • Alignment through relationship: We will never, ever, agree on most things, and don’t expect to. Our job as leaders is to hold relationships that can be productive, and to help others who struggle holding the relationship by reaching toward them. If we can agree to disagree, and know each other enough to care, we have a foundation on which to negotiate.

In the 2008 movie version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the primary conclusion was that only at the precipice do humans change. Somehow, we have to be less comfortable with the present state of things before we begin to act toward improvement. In the future, we will figure out a way to start acting productively before the precipice is upon us.

Dr. Russ Ouellette, managing partner of Sojourn Partners, a Bedford-based executive leadership strategy and coaching firm, can be reached at 603-472-8103 or

Categories: Finance