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Hoping For A Plan

When you take a risk, you feel it.

You feel the anxiety. You feel the fear. You know something could go bad.

But you take the risk because it could go well. Which means you feel something more than fear and anxiety: You feel hope. You hope the bad thing doesn’t happen. You hope the good thing does. You hope it goes well.

Hope and fear are the two sides of taking risks.

But when you’re a spy, you don’t want either one.

You don’t want fear, because fear will slow you down.

And you want to replace hope with a plan.

You want a plan for good things to happen when you’re taking risks.

The people who see risk from a distance tell you to play the odds. They say to make a plan that uses probabilities. That employs statistical tools. That uses modeling and sample sizes and projections of the future.

Which is great, if you’re working with large numbers. If you can afford to lose a few before you gain them back. If you don’t have what gamblers call “the problem of ruin.” If you can play the long game without fear of losing the short game.

But when you’re a spy, the risk is the short game. And risk is small numbers, which means you can’t use complex risk management tools. You can’t consult statistical tools. You can’t analyze risk from a distance because risk is close. You need a different set of tools.

Tools to help you think quickly about risks.

Tools that help you get past the fear.

Tools that help you replace hope with a plan.

In A Spy’s Guide To Taking Risks, there are simple tools to think about risks. Like in A Spy’s Guide To Strategy, how to think about risk starts at the end.

Ends are possibilities. Ends are potentials. A lot of the time, ends are Positive-Sum Games. Ends are things that could exist, whether they exist or not yet.

Once you have the possibility in mind, you take the second step: Reason backward.

Reasoning backward is hard because we’re used to going forward. We’re used to thinking forward. We live our lives forward.

To make it easier, it helps to have a shortcut.

The shortcut for thinking backward about risks is this: For every possibility, there are necessary conditions for it to exist.

For a new thing to happen, whether good or bad, there are necessary conditions. There are things that must exist for the thing to exist.

The first thing you learn in firefighter training are the necessary conditions of a fire: Fuel, Oxygen and Heat. Take away one of those, and the fire doesn’t exist. The rest of firefighter training is figuring out how to take away one of those three necessary conditions and survive.

It looks like this:

In A Spy’s Guide To Strategy, there are three necessary conditions for every strategist’s Endgame: People, Places and Things.

Without people, it doesn’t matter if the strategist has a place or things. Without a place, it doesn’t matter if the strategist has people or things. Without things (like natural resources), the Endgame can’t exist.

The second part of the shortcut is this: Beneath necessary conditions are substitutes.

Although you need fuel for a fire, there lots of different types of fuel for a fire. You could have a flammable gas. Or a flammable liquid. Or a piece of wood. And there are substitutes for oxygen and heat, too.

It looks like this:

For a strategist, they need resources for their Endgame to exist, but there are lots of substitutes. Their Endgame could be sustained by farming or manufacturing or petrochemicals. There are lots of substitutes that allow the necessary condition of “resources” to exist. Which means their Endgame can exist.

Once you understand the necessary conditions and substitutes for a risk, you can do a lot.

You can get past the fear.

You can turn your hope into a plan.

You can eliminate necessary conditions for a risk. Or you can layer on additional low-probability necessary conditions.

You can watch out for substitutes. And be ready to fall back to them, if a tripwire is crossed.

You can replace hope with a plan.


This is from the coming A Spy's Guide To Taking Risks. If you haven't read A Spy's Guide To Strategy, you can get it here.

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