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The Physics of Failure

September 28, 2013 Clemens Rettich Business Planning
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 Einstein spent the second half of his career searching for two things: a repudiation of quantum mechanics, and a unified theory that explained everything.

I don't know quantum mechanics.

But the search for a unified theory I understand. In fact I have my own theory: I believe the intersection of science (especially physics), zen buddhism, music, improv theatre, chocolate, and cocktails, is where everything can be explained.

I have been thinking about this quote by Jim Rohn: “Failure is not a single, cataclysmic event. You don't fail overnight. Instead, failure is a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.

Two concepts from science come to mind: entropy and inertia.

To re-phrase Jim Rohn’s quote: the failure of a system is never a spontaneous singular event: failure is entropy. It’s what happens to any system over time without correction from the outside: it winds down. Further, once a system heads in a certain direction it tends to stay headed in that direction (inertia) unless again there is ‘correction’ from the outside.

I recently spent some time helping a client reconcile with a key employee. Both employer and employee are intelligent, well-meaning people. From the outside it looked like their relationship was productive and positive. But on a recent Friday afternoon after only one email and two telephone calls, and without any prior warning, they were ready to part ways forever. By the time I got involved it looked like the relationship would fail, and it looked like “a single cataclysmic event.”

Also read Planning Is Not A Tool For Thriving

It did not take me long however to discover in interviewing them, that this had been building for months. The error in judgement, the growing entropy in the system, was a consistent failure to meet face-to-face for months because both were ‘too busy’. The inertia that developed was a set of growing false beliefs each held about the other.  Unchecked, these beliefs informed how each action on the part of the other was interpreted. Once you think someone is doing something behind your back, all of a sudden all kinds of ‘proofs’ come to light. This feedback loop continued inside each person’s head, accelerated unchecked by reality, until that Friday afternoon.

How do we avoid that road?

  1. Head off entropy. The best way to head off entropy is to inject energy:
    • Have meetings that matter. Get the team together and communicate to prevent errors from creeping into the system. Share information you can not get through email. This is about nuances, gut feelings, and values. These meetings should create a safe space that allows people to check assumptions, and they should provide an opportunity to generate positive new momentum.
    • Get input from outside. One of the most powerful benefits of engaging an external advisor is engaging the eye of the outsider. Entropy (‘repeated errors in judgement’) is largely invisible to the people inside a system.  Someone from the outside who has professional listening skills, will be able to identify noises and bad smells in the system that everyone else has gotten used to.
    • Expect real leadership. An energized and energizing leader who is able to fuel the team with compelling long-range visions and short-term pay-offs, can keep an organization on an upward trajectory. Successful leaders also pay attention to their hunches, but are not ruled by them. They know something is ‘off’ even if they don’t know exactly what, and they know its time to call one of those assumption-checking meetings to see who else is feeling things aren't quite right. Real leaders then initiate the work to get things back on track.
  2. Prevent inertia. The best way to stop inertia from setting in is through early detection:
    • Get feedback that matters. The degree to which we deceive ourselves has been both overwhelmingly demonstrated by science, and ignored by us in our lives. Only a fool relies completely on their own perceptions of what is going on. Usually by the time we do realize that something is seriously wrong, it is too late. To prevent an irreversable slide, the best thing you can do is surround yourself with intelligent people who will tell you the truth.
    • Correct early. This is obvious, but because of the impact of things like the optimism bias, we too often leave course corrections until too late. In hindsight we often confess that we had a ‘hunch’ things weren't right, but wanted stronger proof before acting. Don't wait. If your gut is telling you something isn't right, call your team together and check in on others’ perceptions. When others  know they aren't the only ones with a 'funny feeling', they will spill in a safe environment.
    • Be prepared to pull the plug. One common barrier to making short-term course corrections is an unwillingness to look the `ultimate course correction’ in the eye. If right from the beginning you aren't ready to stop a project or let someone go if things get too far off course, it is too easy to make sloppy decisions and raise our fault tolerances higher and higher. And because of our optimism bias, we ignore or downplay symptoms. If right from the start we make termination one of the options on the table, we are more fearless in describing what we see and acting accordingly. Our course corrections might come sooner and be more effective.

Great planning means more than just writing up forecasts, hoped-for outcomes and processes on paper. Great planning means doing one thing right: putting together a team that understands the mission, is prepared to be honest, and has the tools to get the job done. You can create almost anything with a plan scratched on the back of an envelope and a great team. On the other hand, the most elegant and well-structured plan will crash, cataclysmically or slowly, if you don’t have the right people in place.

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