Thursday, May 04, 2006

If you ever get anything right it was probably a mistake

“Stand still, I'm trying to shoot you!”

Some years ago I took a course to get a hunting license. One of the things we had to do to qualify for the license was to shoot a paper target shaped like a moose moving back and forth on a track at a distance of 80 meters. The target area on the moose was about the size of a basketball. Having had very little prior experience with weapons it came as a great surprise to me that in order to hit the target area I had to aim at a place where the moose wasn’t. It didn’t take very long to learn how to aim just far enough ahead of the target so that the paper moose would run into the bullet. On a shooting range there are very few parameters to keep in mind when shooting the paper moose. The moose travels in a straight line in one direction at a constant speed. (I have since learned that moose do not do this in real life.)

The problems we face in business are normally much more complex with many different parameters to consider and each of these parameters is itself mutating, developing and changing over time.

“You can’t step into the same river once”

About 2500 years ago Heraclytus wrote that ”You cannot step into the same river twice!”and Cratylus, one of his disciples, went a bit further by saying “You can’t even step into the same river once!”. This pretty well sums up my day to day working life.

As managers we continually confront various problems (or issues and opportunities to be politically correct). We define the current situation, identify the ideal future state, evaluate various alternatives and finally develop and implement an action plan. This model more or less describes the common steps in all change and/or development models. Everyone who has worked with change initiatives knows how challenging they can be. Unfortunately, many changes initiatives are doomed from the very beginning for at least a couple of key reasons.

Lots of small errors can make on hell of a mess!

Much of our analysis is based on assumptions, educated guesses and sometimes wild fantasies. Don’t get me wrong, I would rather have a best guess from a competent colleague than no information at all but none the less many of the problems we face in business are so complex that even small errors in a number of basic assumptions multiply into significant deviations in the final analysis.

If you ever get anything right it was probably a mistake.

We forget that we are shooting at moving targets. We define the problem based on our knowledge (or perceptions) in current state but by the time we have completed our analysis and defined our actions the problem has already evolved into a new state. Most change initiatives take time to implement and by the time the actions are in place the problem the changes were designed to resolve is so different that our changes may at best have no effect at all and at worse might have put us into an even worse position than if we had done nothing at all. In extremely dynamic environments you might say that if you ever actually get anything right it was probably a mistake.

2 comments:

Shawn MacIntyre said...

Actually it was Heraclitus' disciple Cratylus that said you can not step into the same river once... ;-)

David Minster said...

You can't step into the same river - David Minster (not a robot)