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How staying positive is the soft skill you need to manage risks and gains

Dealing with difficult situations at work often shapes our career journey. With the right skills we can choose to remain positive when faced with challenges. This makes staying positive such a crucial soft skill for our personal development. 

Staying positive isn’t about ignoring reality. It’s about using strategies to overcome setbacks and achieve goals. It involves acknowledging that potential risks and gains exist, and making plans to manage them. Every challenge, no matter how daunting, holds the potential for personal growth.

Here, we'll explore three-steps to develop this essential skill. 

  1. looking for opportunities in difficult situations
  2. identifying both risks and gains
  3. making plans to best manage them.

How to find opportunities in difficult situations 

You’ve likely heard that ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ or ‘look on the bright side’. But these sayings in themselves don’t help us consider the opportunities in challenging situations. Imagine you’ve been planning a large project at work. Next, your boss comes back to you with major revisions and some critical feedback. You tell your colleagues about it and they say - “‘look on the bright side’ at least you hadn’t already started the project!”. You thank them for their empathy and support but you’re left wondering, what now? What is the bright side? And how do you find it?

In every challenging situation there will be an opportunity for personal development behind the adversity. Stay positive – you might not see it at first. You’ll need to work through it methodically to uncover the professional development gem.

Examining existing situations 

You should start by thinking about the situation. And one of the first things to do is consider whether the situation has already happened or if it’s yet to happen. 

If we’re dealing with an existing situation, then we can think about both the positive and negative sides. There might be times where there are negative emotions involved – which makes it easier to focus on the negative sides. But as the situation unfolds, or you take the time to reflect, you will likely find some positives. To examine these existing situations, you can start by making two lists and writing down positives and negatives. It might seem like a simple approach but sometimes it’s good to not over complicate the issue. Think about what’s positive and what’s negative. You might want to think about who for and why to flesh out your ideas. 

List the positives and negatives - what's good and what's bad.

It can be helpful to try to take yourself out of a situation, and imagine that you are there as an observer. This helps to put some separation between you and the emotional response you have to the events. You could ask yourself the question, if I was someone else, what would I tell me were the positives in this situation?

Exploring a situation that hasn’t fully happened 

Alternatively, we might be dealing with a situation that is not yet fixed, but is still unfolding. In this case, we have to think slightly differently. We can’t think only in terms of positives or negatives, but we can think about threats – the potential negative effects – and opportunities – the potential positive effects. 

Writing out these threats and opportunities can help force a balanced approach:

Consider threats and opportunities - what might happen - positive and negative

Now that you’ve explored and identified the positives, negatives, opportunities and threats, the next step is a matter of choice. We need to go beyond avoiding the threats and negatives to consider how we choose the positive or opportunities. How do we take action to achieve a positive outcome for ourselves and our wider work context?

Let’s go back to the situation where your boss suggested major revisions to your project.

The opportunities might include:

  • Better quality project
  • Explore your assumptions from a different perspective
  • Learn from your boss’ expertise and insights for next time

The threats might include:

  • Time pressure if you’re working to an existing deadline
  • Scope creep
  • Decreased motivation 

If we outline the opportunities and threats we can identify how we can make the most of the opportunities and gains associated with them. 

How to identify risks and gains in opportunities

The soft skill of staying positive details how a positive attitude meets strategic thinking. And it helps us make good decisions for us and our wider teams. 

The risks and rewards of every challenge or opportunity need to be considered if we are to make good choices. What makes this strategy the right one? Should we consider hiring additional staff? What is our flexibility regarding working hours?

Considering risks

Sometimes these threats present themselves as risks. These will normally involve a level of uncertainty for us to weigh up what might happen and then what if it does. The first things to consider are:

  • The potential impact: What would happen if the risk happened? We might look at this in financial terms, or we might consider whether the impact would be low, medium or high on the overall viability of our plans.
  • The likelihood of the risk happening: What is the probability that the risk will happen? How can we rank that?

Considering gains

Potential gains are the things that might happen which would have a positive effect. These are the intended positive outcomes as a result of undertaking the project, strategy or related decision. 

Sometimes gains are captured in financial terms, but they can include many other elements, such as improved team morale, customer satisfaction or shorter delivery times. It helps to consider these gains in terms of their value of their outcomes. 

Say you have spotted an opportunity to upgrade your company website. You want to consider the financial implications as well as the non-financial benefits. While some gains might be harder to quantify you can explore qualitative data and benchmarking

How to identify potential gains

To calculate the potential financial gains, we have to remove the direct costs of the project to be left with the net gain as a result of the project. For instance, a project that creates £10 of value, but costs £8 to implement has a net gain of £2 before we introduce risk considerations. 

Value created (£10), implementation cost (£8) and net gain (£2)

Balancing gains and risks

Overall we need to thoroughly consider both the expected gains and risks when making a decision about whether to pursue a project. 

If financial values have not been attached to the gains, then you might need to have a discussion about the associated benefits. This might be making a judgement based on existing research, data or insights. 

For decisions with less risk, or a smaller scope, the financial elements don’t always need to be considered. Especially if we know that those involved in making the decisions have the required knowledge and understanding of their area of work. 

However, when it comes to decisions with bigger implications and larger projects, there is normally an expectation that risks and returns will be considered in financial terms (and other modelling around projected outcomes) to make sure the project is worth doing before it is started.

How to develop plans to mitigate risks and deliver gains

Identifying potential risks is important. It can be helpful to identify the probability of them happening as well as the strength of effect that they would have if they occurred. We can do this in a couple of ways:

  • A financial calculation of the impacts in financial terms multiplied by the probability of that happening
  • Or scored according to the likelihood of happening multiplied by the impact, perhaps with each scored out of 5 giving a total score of 25

These calculations are advisable if we are to best prioritise which risks are the most important to mitigate.

Actions to mitigate risks

Let’s take a scenario where a software product launch has been delayed because of technical issues. How you mitigate is based around two main actions:

  • Reduce the likelihood that the risk event will happen: This might include some text
    • Planning or training for team members
    • Putting in additional checks
    • Having the right people with the right skills on the project 
  • Reduce the impact if the risk event happens: This might include some text
    • Creating back-up options which reduce the level of loss as you can switch more quickly to an alternative
    • Having a communications strategy in place to inform customers about the issue

Risk registers

For bigger projects or organisations, you might want to consider using a risk register. A key element in a Project Managers toolkit, which keeps updated records on:

  • The main risks that the project faces.
  • The probability of each of those risks happening.
  • The likely impact if they do happen.
  • The mitigating actions that are being taken.
Main risks, probability, impact and mitigations

The risk register should be considered a live document and reviewed regularly as the project develops or the circumstances change. This is a good way of ensuring that we keep thinking about what could go wrong – which can easily be forgotten about if we are busy putting a project together. How often you review the risk register depends on the length of your project, it could be annually or much more frequently. 

People generally avoid risks even when, on balance, the expected gain outweighs the expected risk. Using the risk register helps us to understand the risks more clearly. This then supports rational and logical thinking so that we can balance risks and potential gain rather than relying on a ‘gut feeling’.

Realise your gains and take new opportunities

Let’s say this time that you’re developing a marketing plan. Usually the main motivator is that a gain is expected. The gains might be financial, or otherwise beneficial, such as for brand awareness, or improved customer satisfaction or internal processes.

Throughout the project, new information will emerge. This might change your understanding of the potential gains or reveal entirely new opportunities. Here's how to stay on top of it:

  • Regular check-ins: Schedule regular progress reviews to assess if your efforts are on track to deliver the expected gains. What is the performance against key metrics so far?
  • Embrace new opportunities: Remain flexible to new opportunities. As they arise, adapt your approach to capture them. 

Explore next…

Beyond measuring risks and gains, you should consider other essential skill steps within your project planning such as 

How could you include essential skills in your personal development?

Building your self-management skills is critical for navigating the challenges and opportunities of professional life. A good starting point is Skills Builder Benchmark

Benchmark is the world’s leading tool for individuals to assess their levels of essential skills. It is used widely by businesses to understand their teams’ skill levels and target professional development, as well as by educators and impact organisations. Completing a self-assessment will give you a picture of your strengths and areas for development. 

Get started on Benchmark.

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