Realistic Optimism

Building Your Goals with “Life Happens” Back-Up Plans.

There are diet products, beauty products, even books that promise you “the answer” and usually it is an easy multi-step process that gets you to your goal.  The marketing for these efforts is always optimistic: “You too can do this! It’s simple! It’s fast (and fairly) painless.”

I haven’t found this to be true.  Change doesn’t come in a one-size fits all, easy solution.  In fact, when it seems too simple, fast and painless, it isn’t likely to happen.  (Hint: the weight loss industry has so many competitive programs, because there isn’t a conclusive quick fix!)

Isn’t optimism a good thing?  Yes, it is.  Optimism and the confidence it creates are key for building and sustaining the personal motivation you need to achieve your goals.  The question becomes:  When does optimism serve you and when does it destroy your confidence that you really can achieve that personal dream or company vision? 

What’s Needed – A Dose of Optimism or Realism?

Recently, I was consulting a division leader, “Mary,” who was launching a new product. Instinctively she knew it was going to be a home run and wanted to get it out to market as soon as possible. She was resistant to documenting the launch strategy in any detail. Her reasoning was that there wasn’t time to get it all documented and achieve the launch date. Plus, she felt she had the backing of everyone in the 20 person division, many having key roles in the launch.  She was a ten on the confidence Richter Scale! 

While I didn’t have a deep knowledge of product itself, I have seldom seen 20 people mind-read one another so effectively, particularly if a plan encounters breakdown.  My concern was that the full team had not launched a product before and Mary expected everyone to follow her verbalized steps for a successful launch.  Mary was so rushed to “get it to market” she didn’t stop to consider what could happen if one of the multiple steps didn’t work as discussed.  She felt that her energy and optimism would push through any problems or bumps in the roll-out.

After some encouragement, we spent 45 minutes together and discussed some “what-if” scenarios.  In the conversation, we went from rampant optimism to “realistic optimism” as we considered and documented what could sabotage the launch success and then we created back-up plans.  She agreed to ask her staff to consider, research and prepare for “just in case” situations.  A few weeks later, she later told me she felt like she had increased staff buy-in.

It sounds simple.  Yet, how often do we look for the fire escape on our plan?  Realistic optimism means being hopeful and being prepared for the unexpected.  It also means confirming and being clear about when to go to Plan B or the triggers for Plan B?

Plan B, Plan C…Plan X Increases the Chance for Success

To build anything, to change a process, to find a better way, you need the optimism that you can actually accomplish it.  Realistic optimism increases the chances for success significantly.  It acknowledges that “life happens” and has a back-up plan.  Shipments are delayed, competition counters a strong marketing message, a key staff person accepts another job. Anything that can happen will happen.  Planning for the tough surprises has payoff — and knowing from the start that big goals take more effort and contingency plans are needed to increase the likelihood of success.

“Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen found this to be true in studies of students looking for high-paying jobs after college, singles looking to find lasting love, and seniors recovering from hip replacement surgery.  Realistic optimists send out more job applications, find the courage to approach potential romantic partners, and work harder on their rehabilitation exercises — in each case, leading to much higher success rates.”[i]

When we work with leaders, who are optimistic about achieving success with a new strategy – all of us have a significant head start in getting to the desired outcome.  But it is truly when we get to defining what the success will look like in terms of financial metrics and cultural fit, as well as what “failure” or business blocks could occur with contingency plans, that the chances for true success increase dramatically.  My clients are ready for when “life happens.”


What is the impact financially and on morale when a backed plan shifts or worse, falls flat?  What would realistic optimism look like?

[i]   Heidi Grant Halvorson, “Be an Optimist without being a Fool.”


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