Zero Based Thinking

Brian Tracy told me about an extremely interesting and effective technique to use if you are struggling to make a difficult decision or you face a dilemma.

It’s called zero based thinking.

So next time you have a difficult decision, ask yourself this one question:

“Knowing what I know now, would I still make the same decision?”

Difficult Decision Example 1 – A Difficult Member of Staff

Imagine if one of your team members is unreliable, performs their job poorly and won’t communicate their progress despite many requests for updates. However the person has one special skill which is useful to the business which no one else has.

You have a difficult employment decision.

Should you consider firing this person?

When you apply zero based thinking to this decision you ask yourself:

“Knowing what I know now, would I still recruit this person?”

If your answer is “No”, then it is a pretty clear indication that it is time for a parting of the ways.

You can’t carry staff that you wouldn’t re-employ.

An Example of A Difficult Decision For Employees

I remember one of the biggest lessons in my management career.

I was chief accountant at an engineering company in the West Midlands of the UK and I had a financial accountant who was hopeless.

I revised my expectations and standards of his work downwards and then down again.

It seemed the less I expected, the less he achieved.

Finally I had enough and accepted that it couldn’t carry on.

I fired him.

I think it was a relief to him and it was certainly a relief to me.

From that moment on I swore that I would never again lower my standards of what I expected from my team.

If the person is not good enough, accept it and move on.

Difficult Decision Example 2 – A Failing Franchise

I have a friend who bought into a franchise and as with most franchises it cost a lot of money, most of her savings in fact.

Unfortunately the franchise area wasn’t exclusive and had been largely tapped out by the existing franchisee.

Relationships were already established with the likely prospects and other prospective customers were just not interested. They’d heard the pitch before and rejected it.

The franchisor had undeveloped marketing systems and offered little in the way of lead generation but expected a monthly franchising fee to continue to be paid.

I helped my friend focus on this difficult decision by explaining about zero based thinking.

She asked herself:

“Knowing what I know now, would I still buy this franchise?”

Again the answer was “No.”

It was barely generating any cash and certainly wasn’t providing a return for the time spent or money invested.

While it was a bitter pill, it was time to accept that the franchise fee was gone.

The business opportunity was never there and it had been a bad decision.

It would have been an even worse decision to continue wasting time on this failed franchise and zero based thinking made this clear.

Example 3 – A Professional Association

A few years ago I joined a network of business advisers.

It had seemed a good idea at the time and some of the members were making a lot of money out of it.

But the network was going one way and I was going another.

Over time we grew further apart.

I still rate the network and despite assurances that they would move back into the middle ground, I faced a difficult decision.

Should I continue paying the monthly fees (around £300) in the hope of future benefits.

I asked myself the zero based thinking question.

“Knowing what I know now, would I still join this network?”

The answer was “No” so I knew it was time to leave.

OK it cost me money as I certainly never recouped my investment and who knows, perhaps it would have generated future profits.

But I felt so much better when I had faced up to the question and made the decision.


Are you facing a difficult decision?

Are you locked in the horns of a dilemma?

If so try zero based thinking and ask yourself:

“Knowing what I know now, would I…”

Has it helped?

Zero based thinking is a fantastic coaching or self-coaching technique to encourage you to free your mind of the current situation.

It re-frames the issue into a simple black or white answer.

And when you’ve got the answer, you know what to do.

If the answer is No, the solution to the difficult decision is then just a question of when and how you bring things to an end.

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