Tag Archives: uncertainty

Anything That Can Go Wrong

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I am still struggling with the concept of time span. You say that time span indicates complexity. How?

Response:
Don’t overthink this fundamental concept. Life is about uncertainty. It is like the weather and the stock market. There is always uncertainty.

Combine this level of uncertainty with our intentions (goal directed behavior) and you observe the consternation of the ages. This is not a matter of going with the flow, but trying to get something done, achieve a goal, create an accomplishment. Elliott describes this as the “time span of intention.”

In spite of our best intentions, the longer it takes to achieve the goal, the more time life has to be unpredictable. The shorter time it takes to achieve the goal, the less time life has to happen, the less opportunity for some circumstance to come in sideways and blow everything up.

Time span is about contingencies. Time span becomes a calibration tool that allows us to precisely measure the impact of uncertainty in our best laid plans.

Step back and remember Murphy’s Law. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. How long do we give Murphy to play?

What is Competence?

Andrew was beside himself. “How could this happen?” he exclaimed. “We had that bid locked down. That was our contract. We literally worked for 16 months to position ourselves. We built the infrastructure. We built the relationships with the customer at all the levels. Then one guy gets promoted and we get a form letter saying that our contract has been terminated, thirty days notice.”

“What do you think is the problem?” I asked.

“I don’t know, sometimes I think my whole team is incompetent. To let this slip through, when we worked so hard for it.”

“Do you really think your team is incompetent?” I followed up.

Andrew shook his head from side to side. “No. Heaven’s no. What am I thinking? To every person on the team, I wouldn’t trade a single one. They are all A players. I just don’t know what happened.”

“Sometimes, when we think about competence,” I replied, “we think it is our ability to control the parts of the world that cannot be controlled. Events of the world will occur in spite of us. So, what is competence?”

Andrew was listening, but not sure if he liked what he heard. I continued.

“The Boy Scout motto is Be Prepared. Competence is not the ability to control the uncontrollable. Competence is the ability to control ourselves in the face of uncertainty. Be prepared. Be prepared for uncertainty. It is a matter of mental fitness.” -Tom

The Uncertainty of the Future

“You look absorbed in something,” I observed.

Abbe looked up from her desk. “Yes, I have this project coming up. Never worked on a project like this before. Don’t know anyone who has worked on a project like this before. Risky. Not devastating risk, but this project could go sideways fast.”

“And?” I asked.

“I am trying to think about projects we have completed in the past that could help me figure out this new project,” she replied.

“Looking for patterns in past projects will only help you so much. It helps you understand the past. But we live, going forward into the future. And we cannot predict the future. There is uncertainty and ambiguity. Planning helps, but even the best plan rarely survives its train-wreck with reality. We cannot control the future. The best we can do is be clear about our intentions. And prepare ourselves for that uncertainty.”

Predictability and Uncertainty

“I understand how we calculate profit, but what does that have to do with my organizational chart?” Derrick asked.

“You design a predictable profit into your price, but what is it that keeps your profit predictable when you actually deliver your product or service?” I replied.

Derrick was thinking. “It becomes predictable when we are able to do the same thing over and over, the same way, with the same methods, in the same amount of time, with the same amount of scrap.”

“And how do you make all that happen over and over?”

“Well, we have designed a system and we train everyone to work the system.”

“And so, if something is happening with the predictability of your profit, what’s wrong, where do you look?” I continued.

“Something has to be wrong with the system,” Derrick nodded.

“So, where do you look?” I insisted.

“We should try to find out what’s wrong with the system.”

“Remember, I said that your problem is seldom a what, almost always a who?

Derrick grinned. “So, that’s why you want to look at the org chart.”