Monthly Archives: March 2015

Banality of Problems and the Limits of Scalability

Once upon a time I liked to derive lessons from stories; sometimes I still do. A recurring lesson is the impact of minor mistakes and random circumstances on the character’s fate. If only they stayed quiet, or paid more attention, or used a newer car, or avoided traffic, or were less trusting… Mistakes that were easy to avoid with just a little more knowledge or composure or preparation.

Of course, the writer needs to end the story and villain’s mistakes allow difficult odds to be overcome in an exciting way. But there are deeper reasons for errors: individual pride, complacency of experience, overconfidence of inexperience, effects of stress on decision-making, trade-offs inherent to skill-sets.

We focus on mistakes as failures to prepare at the expense of a broader lesson: “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Leaders respond with deeper plans, contingency plans, redundancy, more data, explicit procedures, education… They develop meta-plans to make plans responsive to the dynamics of execution, they build ever-more complete ways to evaluate results and feed them back to decision makers at ever-faster rates.

But more complex plans have more ways to fail, redundancy breeds complacency, contingency plans are under-tested, procedures reduce individual motivation and attention to detail, credentials give a false sense of confidence… And problems again arise for reasons so banal they would be funny if they weren’t so painful. Continue reading Banality of Problems and the Limits of Scalability