Constructive Paranoia: Coming Soon to a Sales Organization Near You


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Admiral Hyman Rickover, who pioneered the US nuclear-powered navy, famously required job candidates to sit on a chair that he intentionally made awkwardly lopsided. He felt anyone who could deal with the aggravation was likelier to succeed on his team.

“Sure it’s uncomfortable working without a firm underpinning of stability. That’s why we need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Thompson Morrison wrote in a blog, The Uses of Discomfort.

Strange as this idea seems, it exposes a great truth. We all need to be comfy. We all like to be comfy. But we can’t exist without some discomfort, and the paranoia that comes with it. Turns out, just like caffeine and “bad” cholesterol, there’s a healthy side to paranoia, as Intel’s Andy Grove explained in his book, Only the Paranoid Survive.

In 2013, cultural anthropologist and author Jared Diamond wrote about paranoia and risk in an essay in The New York Times, That Daily Shower Can be a Killer. In the article, Diamond reasoned that if he wanted to achieve his statistical quota of 15 more years of life (he was 75 at the time he wrote his essay), that meant taking 5,475 (15 x 365) more showers. “But if I were so careless that my risk of slipping in the shower each time were as high as 1 in 1,000, I’d die or become crippled about five times before reaching my life expectancy. I have to reduce my risk of shower accidents to much, much less than 1 in 5,475. This calculation illustrates the biggest single lesson that I’ve learned from 50 years of field work on the island of New Guinea: the importance of being attentive to hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently [emphasis mine].” He coined a quirky term, “constructive paranoia,” to explain why New Guineans are effective at avoiding routine hazards, such as getting crushed under falling trees.

In the developed world, we don’t normally get all jittery when walking under foliage. But in the area of New Guinea where Diamond studied, medical clinics and 911 emergency call centers don’t exist. For Diamond, constructive paranoia, which he defines as a hyper-vigilant attitude toward repeated low risks, makes complete sense. By comparison, he warns that “Americans’ thinking about dangers is confused. We obsess about the wrong things, and we fail to watch for real dangers . . . Studies have compared Americans’ perceived ranking of dangers with the rankings of real dangers, measured either by actual accident figures or by estimated numbers of averted accidents. It turns out that we exaggerate the risks of events that are beyond our control, that cause many deaths at once or that kill in spectacular ways — crazy gunmen, terrorists, plane crashes, nuclear radiation, genetically modified crops. At the same time, we underestimate the risks of events that we can control [emphasis mine].”

In business development, risks from what we can’t control command great attention. In 2010, I conducted a sales risk perception study with CustomerThink in which the two most concerning risks sales executives identified were economic and competitive. Yet, prosaic, everyday risks that could be considered controllable were not cited: the customer’s technical question that was answered incorrectly, the proposal that was presented but didn’t fully match the prospect’s stated needs, the problem resolution that took longer than promised, the price discount that was offered to a buyer but inadvertently was not applied, the Tweet or social media post that pushed just over the boundary of good taste.

All of these are discrete incidents that, individually, aren’t horribly risky or catastrophic. But when they spread into patterns – as they often do – they insidiously aggregate to huge risks that undermine positive outcomes, and erode value. Are we obsessing about the wrong things, and failing to be vigilant for visceral dangers that are closer to home? Are marketers and salespeople numb to constructive paranoia?

Emphatically, yes. At least, anecdotally. Little gaffes and service hiccups from situations that we can control go viral, spiraling into larger risks. United Airlines broke my guitar. One incident, and anyone in United corporate marketing can tell you how many people heard the story on YouTube: 14.6 million, and counting. Sure, the economy is iffy. Go pump up your sales pipeline. 3X seems pretty safe in this market. Just let your claims department know not to enforce your 24-hour incident-report policy so strenuously. Better still, change the policy.

In a recent CustomerThink column by Christine Crandell, What Causes B2B Customers to Churn? Three Things, and “Price” Isn’t One of Them, a commenter, John Ragsdale, wrote, “If customers are receiving value, i.e., the outcomes they anticipated, they will stick with you through missing features and occasional lapses in support levels. However, I think very few tech companies are capable of assessing customer outcomes, and are not sure what to do to improve them. Renaming your customer support organization as “customer success” is not solving the problem.”

His statement exposes a curious paradox that infects customer service organizations around the globe: we expect customers to put up with ambient, low-level, vendor misfires. But that tolerance insulates us from understanding the gravity of the outcomes. In effect, it insulates us from customers. And we don’t know the point at which those absent features and service lapses will create a former customer out of a current customer. What’s needed is an NSUS – Net Screw-up Score – so we can watch customer relationships melt down from a convenient dashboard. So, yes, I think constructive paranoia is a good thing. As Brian Tracy said about selling, “everything counts.” A difficult standard, but he makes a valuable point.

According to Crandell, “. . . large and small businesses often change the products [they use] . . . to the bewilderment of the vendor’s sales, marketing, and customer success teams.” Her use of “bewilderment” grabbed me, because it underscores the problem that Diamond pointed out: that we obsess about the wrong things and fail to watch for the real dangers.

Bewilderment? Really? Hazards will always occur, customers will still jump ship from time to time, but when you’re constructively paranoid about repeated low risks, bewilderment will be – should be – a very rare reaction.


  1. Great article, Andrew. i love the Net Screw Up Score! There is constructive paranoia but it is not outward focused but rather inward obsessed. Employees and leader obsess about their jobs, political correctness, the product /project they staked their career/bonus/raise, etc. Organizations are so consumed with ego, fear, and attachment that empathy and compassion for customers and partners is challenged. Ech screw up is down- or playedup depending upon the individual and the potential consequences. Uber’s public gaffe over destroying reporters was played up as a boardroom bully flexing his Billion-dollar valuation muscles. The consequences of that initially was costly in terms of customers but not in terms of financial markets.
    The near-and short-term focus of financial markets results in tradeoffs in which CLV is sacrificed for this quarter’s revenue.

    Do we need to be paranoid? I would rather see us become more enlightened, aware and compassionate. Not just with customers but also with employees. Possibly the root cause is that we’ve forgotten how to lead and manage from the heart instead of the wallet. But that’s just my opinion.

  2. Christine: thanks for your comment. Interesting idea that people are indeed paranoid about what goes on inside the organization, but don’t bring that perspective to what goes on outside. Imagine what an adrenaline rush it would be if there was comparable attentiveness to the goings-on in customer accounts!

  3. Hello Andrew,

    Is it really this simple? Really? I remember having a conversation like this with my manager, when I was in a sales role. We disagreed. He thought is was, and I did not agree. Yes, you can make some improvement. No, selling cannot be reduced to nice-neat-logical-methodical exercise.

    As my manager and I disagreed, I offered him an invitation. Let’s swap roles, you do my role for one quarter, and I will do your role. If you are correct in your assertions then you will show how wrong I am by bringing in the sales, increasing conversion rates, increasing velocity…

    What do you think: do you think he embraced by invitation with enthusiasm? No. He found a way to decline that invitation. No, selling cannot be reduced to some simple minded formula. Never can when we are dealing with the realm of human relating.

    All the best

  4. Andy, you have put your brilliance on a very important issue. Andy Grove, when asked if he was in charge of the Intel organization commented that he was in charge of disorganization. The very essence of innovation is disruption. Wise leaders view stability and smooth sailing as a wake-up call signaling that on the other side of comfort is complacency. Complacency breeds competitive blindness. With customers constantly changing, marketplace greatness is always a journey, never a destination.

  5. Maz: thanks very much for your comment. I didn’t intend to imply that constructive paranoia was a simple, ‘silver bullet’ solution for preventing customer churn. In fact, I believe it’s pretty complex, because for most of us, it demands a new way of examining, evaluating and taking action when faced with uncertainties and risks. By ‘sweating the details’ that are frequently overlooked, executives can manage many of the issues that undermine revenue achievement.

    Chip: thanks for your comment. I agree. To your point, whenever you read an annual report saturated with self-congratulatory hype, and absent any concern for future outcomes, sell your stock!


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