product innovation blog

5 of the Biggest Fears and How to Overcome Them


As consultants, one trait we see is the inability of managers and leaders to make a decision. Consequently, a number of issues occur because of a manager’s indecision. For example, a project continues to fester in development, and everyone knows it should be killed but no one wants to make that final decision.

Why does indecision happen? The fear of making a mistake.

Paul Schoemaker identified four types of mistakes: Tragic, Serious, Trivial and Brilliant (1).

It’s best to stay away from Tragic and Serious types of mistakes. Tragic, for example, having a car accident and being injured. While Serious is a new project or venture failing.

We can live with Trivial, such as a parking ticket. and Brilliant which could be a lab error that ends up having a significant positive outcome.

Brilliant mistakes are the beginning of discovery and determining what works and doesn’t work. In product development, if you have a project that has a lot of uncertainties, it is best to break these down into manageable chunks, and to resolve the biggest uncertainties first. This approach leads to brilliant mistakes, and it minimizes serious mistakes and risks.

I’m adding another mistake to Schoemaker’s four which is not making a decision, and this is commonly driven by fear.

The table below was developed by our firm, and it lists five of the Biggest Fears that managers encounter on a daily basis, including an Approach to Combat those fears, and the Outcome of practicing the approach.

The Five Biggest Fears, and How To Overcome Them:

1. Looking dumb. Lead by asking questions, don’t pretend to have all the answers, listen to the team and act as a facilitator and coach. You gain respect.

2. Afraid of risks. Exploratory PD™ (ExPD) is based on identifying and resolving the largest project uncertainties. Be open to small-scale experimentation and pilots. Fail Fast, Often and Cheaply. You are seen as an innovator.

3. Making a bad decision. Work with the team as a coach to understand and resolve the largest project uncertainties. Another major characteristic of ExPD. Your decisions are supported by the team, and you will have more buy-in.  To learn more, read this post on decentralized decision-makingThe pressure is not all on you to have all the answers.

4. Fear of missing an opportunity. Having a robust strategy or strategy rules that will assist you and your team in making the right project decisions.  For more on strategy and uncertainty, read this post. You choose the right projects.

5. Being fired. Prove yourself quickly with some fast successes. The higher you’re in the organization, the quicker you have to prove yourself. Typically, you only have a couple of years. You will have greater job security.

To realize fast successes, you do have to make decisions. Take the data that is available, reduce the major uncertainties of the project, and determine if the company is willing to take on the project risks. It doesn’t totally need to be on your shoulders. Get other managers and team members participation, input, and buy-in. Make decisions with confidence. Decision-making is a dynamic evolving process, but it can be done in a systematic way to lessen “serious” mistakes.

Do you have any input on overcoming the fear of making mistakes?

This posting was originally published by MENG and the Huffington Post.

(1) Paul J. H. Schoemaker, Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure. (2011), Philadelphia: Wharton Digital Press.


Strategy 2 Market helps companies increase growth and decrease product development complexity. www.strategy2market.com

For more information or to speak with one of our consultants, please contact Mary Drotar at 708-829-7470 or mdrotar@strategy2market.com