It's the One You Don't See That'll Kill You

by Adam Hartung

It's the One You Don't See That'll Kill YouHow widely do you plan for a different future? Do you think British Petroleaum’s (BP’s) engineers and managers knew there was a chance of a major problem coming from deep water drilling? It seems illogical to think they didn’t know the chance existed. Yet, they seemed pretty ill-prepared for the problem. As did the federal government agencies and responders – as well as all the businesses that make a living out of cleaning up water-based oil spills. Critical-Thinking.com sums up the issue pretty succinctly in the article “What is Your Company’s Deepwater Horizon?” According to the article, the problem at BP is one that lots of companies have; most businesses simply don’t put enough effort into planning for worst case scenarios.

Actually, the problem is worse than that. Most companies only plan for one scenario – more of the same. Planning processes rarely do more than extend past performance. In today’s fast paced, global, highly competitive world it would seem that is about the least likeliest scenario. But it’s the one that dominates how businesses plan. That so many businesses have been turning for the worse, or failing, is testament to how smart people are let down by planning processes that simply don’t consider alternatives strongly enough. Look at the old AT&T, Tribune Corp., GM, Sears, Lehman Brothers, Silicon Graphics, Sun Microsystems, NCR, RCA, Unisys, Zenith, International Harvester, Brach’s Candy…..

But planning problems are even worse than this! The first order problem is simply thinking about the potential scenarios and planning for them. Like the military does before a campaign. Even though nobody knows what will happen, by planning for a range of contingencies any business can be far better prepared. But what about the contingencies – the outcomes – you don’t think about? What about scenarios you don’t want to think about?

According to the New York Times there’s “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You Don’t Know What It Is.” Have you ever been in a meeting and someone, usually from the outside – like a vendor – said “but what about this _______” and they describe something going really, really, wrong — completely not as anticipated? And then somebody, usually somebody that’s been around the company a long time and has both stature and influence says “well, if that happens then we’re all dead. All bets are off.” And with that, the conversation ends. It was a scenario, regardless of probability, that he simply didn’t want to consider. His position was basically “hey youngster, that’s crazy talk so let’s not honor it with discussion.”

Now we have a whole different scenario planning problem. One where we know, and will admit there are things that could happen, but we don’t know what they are. Where we are so locked-in to our existing thinking that we don’t even see these scenarios. We don’t know what we don’t know, and we’re not asking what we don’t know. We can’t visualize an outcome that is possibly very different.

This is called the Dunning-Krueger effect, for the two psychologists who discovered it (David Dunning and Justin Krueger of Cornell.) Basically, it says we ignore options. We lose the spark to explore options that don’t seem obvious. We lock-in on the way we think about the problem so strongly that potential solutions which are on a different vector – come from a different source – are simply not even considered. As if they could never exist.

And that’s why all organizations need outsiders. And not just customers – who are heavily biased toward a better, faster, cheaper status quo. The Dunning-Krueger effect means that all organizations need boards, lawyers, consultants, advisors, friends that don’t have their lock-in. People that can come up with scenarios that don’t have their lock-in. People that can come up with scenarios that your own organization would simply never consider. Like a drilling rig blowing up in deep water and leaving a spewing hole of crude oil that has to somehow be capped —- that could shut down drilling in a major oil producing area, fishing, and all sorts of other businesses. Possibly wreck part of the ecology for decades. And wipe out the company dividend and customer goodwill while looking for a solution.

Image credit: egarc2

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Adam HartungAdam Hartung, author of “Create Marketplace Disruption“, is a Faculty and Board member of the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, Managing Partner of Spark Partners, and writes for “Forbes” and the “Journal for Innovation Science.”

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  1. I have been reading some of the papers of Jay W.Forrester, links of whose works can be found here. He works with computer models to establish likely scenarios. His models depend not on intuition, but quantifiable and visible forces. It is an exciting immersion into the actual machine, but the fantasy.

  2. The “virus” of ignoring outside opinion is being fueled by a succession of incompetents rising through the ranks. These people have acheived their ascension due to their connnections with other like minded individuals at very detrimental cost to the organization in terms of business agility and destructive morale. This virus is akin to hereditary diseases in that incompetent leadership is quite open to other incompenents kissing up to them since it is the only language they know.

  3. Thank you for the repost of my blog entry.

    -Adam Hartung

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