Businesses that Die, Die of confusion

So to survive, you must prevent confusion? Bill Dettmer of Goal Systems International, Theory of Constraints Expert and upcoming podcast guest recommended a book to me about Systems Thinking. It was Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. At the time it sounded like an odd recommendation but Bill was “spot on” about the book. Confusion It caused me more reflection than any book has in years. One of the particular areas that Laurence described in the book is this state of confusion or of being lost. He said:

Research suggests five general stages in the process of person goes through when lost.

  1. In the first, you deny that you disorientated and press on with growing urgency, attempting to make your mental map fit what you see.
  2. In the next stage as you realize that you genuinely lost, the urgency blossoms into a full scale survival emergency. Clear thought becomes impossible and action because frankly, unproductive, even dangerous.
  3. In the third stage (usually following injury or exhaustion), you expend the chemicals of emotion and form a strategy for finding some place that matches the mental map. (It is a misguided strategy, for there is no such place now: you are lost.)
  4. In the fourth stage, you deteriorate both rationally and emotionally, as a strategy falls to resolve the conflict.
  5. In the final stage, as you run out of options and energy, you must become resigned to your plight. Like it or not you must make a new mental map of where you are. You must become Robertson Crusoe or you will die. To survive, you must find yourself. Then it won’t matter where you are.

Psychologists who study the behavior of people, who get lost, report that very few ever backtrack. Though, that is the most reasonable and successful way to survive. Even staying exactly where you are is more prudent than blazing a path forward. However our eyes look forward into real or imagined worlds. The typical impulse of people that become loss is to panic. Why? It is because of the lack of a mental map that matches the environment they are in. If you had a mental map of where you just came from, you would simply turn around and go back to where you started.

Are you thinking recovery is just around the corner? Are things taking longer than expected? Are you scrambling for the next great idea? Is innovation panic? I question sometimes whether innovation is really the strategy for companies to survive during recessionary times. Instituting new mental maps, products or services may make things progressively more unfamiliar and mixed up.

Innovation may not be the key. Scott Berkun in his book Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management (Theory in Practice (O’Reilly)) devoted a chapter to ‘What to do When Things Go Wrong” and pointed out an eight step process.

    1. Calm down: Nothing makes a situation worse than basing your actions on fear, anger, or frustration.
    2. Evaluate the problem in relation to the project: Just because someone else thinks the sky has fallen doesn’t mean that it has. Is this really a problem at all? Whose problem is it?
    3. Calm down again: Now that you know something about the problem, you might really get upset (“How could those idiots let happen!?”).
    4. Get the right people in the room: Any major problem won’t impact you alone. Identify who else is most responsible, knowledgeable, and useful and get them in together straight away.
    5. Explore alternatives: After answering any questions and clarifying the situation, figure out what your options are.
    6. Make the simplest plan: Weigh the options, pick the best choice, and make a simple plan. The best available choice is the best available choice, no matter how much it sucks (a crisis is not the time for idealism). The more urgent the issue, the simpler your plan.
    7. Execute: Make it happen.
    8. Debrief: After the fire is out, get the right people in the room and generate a list of lessons learned.

Though Scott’s plan is not a cure-all, it emphasizes the need to stay calm and build simple plans. One of the most effective strategies you can do is build value stream maps. Not for the typical Lean reasons or reducing waste but to create a current state map or a mental model for where you are today. I cannot emphasize enough the ability to accept where you are, what resources you have and if you know how you got here, you may be just fine in understanding how to survive.

As Laurence Gonzales states, “If we persist in bending the map until we can no longer deny the evidence of our senses, it can be terrifying. It’s not something that happens immediately. First it’s a sense of disorientation: “I’m not in Kansas anymore. “ Then the words start to become strange, landmarks are no longer familiar.” Do you need innovation to survive? It is one thing if you are an innovative company already and have an existing mental map. It is quite another, if one does not exist. You may wake up and find out you’re not in Kansas anymore!

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4 thoughts on “Businesses that Die, Die of confusion”

  1. Fantastic post, Joe.

    It reminds me of a training exercise I did as part of my onboarding/orientation when I joined Microsoft Consulting Services a few years back (since left). Our “class” was broken into teams and given a wilderness survival scenario to work through where we were marooned in the Canadian wilderness in winter after a plane crash.

    We moved into break-out rooms with cameras to film our reactions as we tried to plan our survival. In my group, there was a lot of initial confusion around the question of “should we stay or go?” Being the only Canadian in the entire “class”, let alone my team I knew the answer was to stay put, build a fire and put some tea on. ;-)

    I took a lot of heat because I forced the point home – ended up getting an award of sorts for sticking to my guns in the face of extreme opposition.

    It was interesting to note that the idea to strike out over the frozen muskeg was an idea that was supported by people of many different geographies. They all believed they could wander in the wilderness and find civilization with nothing more than the clothes on their backs in the dead of winter.

  2. Thanks for the insights. On the same note, I am amazed how many companies, especially when times are tough, think they can expand their product/services into other markets with the same efforts or the extra time that salespeople have now.

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