The sweet spot of risk

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How much time, energy or money should you invest in a project?

How do you decide when to focus on “less”, or diversify into “more”?

Whether you’re an entrepreneur deciding on new markets, a leader working to understand your team members’ capacity, or a freelancer considering a new client, I think it’s important we move beyond simple gut instinct and, as much as possible, rationally consider where we put our limited resources, when, and how often.  I’ve been playing with a model and I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

Assuming that something passes the “gut check”, of saying “yes, this is something that’s exciting and interesting to me“, there are two factors I consider when looking at how to allocate resources (below).  I don’t want to undervalue the importance of that gut check – my strong opinion is that projects are only worth pursuing (clients worth working with, team members worth hiring, etc.) if you believe in what they stand for and are excited to be a part of them.  My challenge (as possibly yours) is not around finding enough projects to be excited about.  Quite to the contrary, I have a habit of overcommitting.  (you too?) I’ve been working on a model to help me make strategic decisions about which projects to pursuewhen and how much to put into them.  Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

Time Horizon:Focus vs Diversification

At it’s essence – when considering a shorter timeline, I choose to focus.  When considering a longer timeline, I like to diversify.  Nothing rocket-science here, this is simply a matter of limited capacity.  The less time I have, the fewer things I can reasonably accomplish.  Straight forward, but warrants the occasional reminder.

(my intended level of) Participation:

When I’m actively involved in a project, I need to focus my resources into a few things I can do well.  When I’m passively supporting a project (again, either through time, money or energy) there’s more benefit in diversifying.  Since (presumably) someone else is driving the bus on those other projects, and so long as I believe in those people, there’s value to being a part of it.

So the focus vs diversification piece is fairly straight forward, when we base the decision on these two criteria:  The more involved I am in a thing, and the shorter the timeline in which to do it, the more focus is required.  The less involved, and the longer the timeline, the more I can “dabble” (aka diversify).

What was most interesting (and perhaps most exciting) to me in putting this together was the other two boxes – the “Passive short term” and “Active Long term” quadrants.    What’s worthy of our active involvement on a long term basis?  What do we do with the short term, passive involvement projects?  Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Commitment Table “Active Long term” (bottom right):

This is legacy.  This is Pam Slim’s “Body of Work”, and Michael Bungay Stainer’s “Great Work”.  This is what Mitch Joel calls “Managing a squiggly career.”, and Stephen Covey referred to as “Quadrant 2” activities.  This is the greatness stuff, and the aspect of our life that benefits from review and reflection sessions, as well as day dreaming & visioning.

“Passive short term” (top left):

Small bets.  Have a team member who wants to try a new process?  Make a small bet.  What about a new subcontractor that you don’t have time to vet as fully as you’d like, but need to get started?  Small bets.  Ideally, these small bets allow you to remain innovatively minded, without draining your time, attention or money.  These are “feelers” to see what might warrant great resources later.


As I said, it’s a newer model for me, but I like the clarity it provides when considering new projects.  Something new comes along and I can run the initial gut check.  If I’m intrigued, I can run it through the two factors – how much attention does it need, and how soon?  Based on the answer to those questions, I can determine which quadrant it fits in, and what the appropriate next steps might be.  Then, I can run it through the gut check again.  I’m an optimist – I see the potential in virtually everything.  But now, I’m not just looking at the potential, but at what I’d have to give up in order to pursue it.  And that helps keep me grounded. Food for thought, in any event.

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