Inefficiency – the antidote to surprises.

Everything in and around us changes constantly. By the time you get to the end of this sentence, around 50 million cells in your body will have died and replaced. Our entire bodies are replaced every seven years.

We don’t notice. It’s normal.

Twenty percent of businesses fail in their first year, fifty percent by their fifth year and seventy percent by their tenth year. Fewer than 25% of FTSE companies have made it through the last forty years. Most of the knowledge you are using today will be obsolete in five years.

We don’t notice. The rate of decay is normal. We don’t notice it often until it’s too late. Our business becomes irrelevant, our resume tired. Normal is a seductress.

Normal has a half life

People’s reactions to the impact of Coronavirus have been instructive. Universities wanting government subsidy because how they do what they do has been obsolescing, and the virus has exposed that brutally. A confectionery manufacturer who has done an exemplary job of using their online channel to support sales that have been lost from their shops – but who stated that “they are now moving back online”. Like the internet doesn’t do viruses. People finding themselves writing resumes and only now discovering how hollow they seem.

The half life of normal is getting shorter.

The monoliths that relied on economies of scale had fifty good years. Those who developed effective technology monopolies – Microsoft, IBM had thirty good years, Facebook may have twenty.

Thirty years ago, you might have had to have two careers in your lifetime at most. Those setting out today will likely have more than ten.

The very best forecasters – the “superforecasters” run out of steam at about 400 days. The rest of us average around 150.

150 days. Maybe that’s the half life of normal.

We used to do five year strategic plans. We still do annual budgets. They remain useful exercises in thought, but can be worse than useless. They can lull us into a false sense of security.

Because we’ve done them, we implicitly believe them. Psychologists call it priming. It is easy to become wilfully blind. We see what we want to that supports our plans, and ignore the inconvenient stuff.

The half life of normal is continuing to reduce until normal becomes meaningless.

Inconvenient is the new normal

There’s an important line in Margaret Heffernan’s book “Uncharted”, (and in an excellent 15 min recap on Jericho Chambers Webinar.)

deal with the just in time, and prepare for the just in case.

Margaret Heffernan.

Coronavirus is an event it was easy to forecast generally, but not specifically. We have known, with confidence a pandemic would occur, just not when or where it would originate. The same goes for earthquakes, global warming events, terrorist strikes, mass population movements and a range of other life changing occurrences.

When they happen, they trigger a whole cascade of subsisidiary inconveniences to our way of life – some minor, some life changing.

We get angry at them, and look for someone to blame.

Right now, imagine you’re in government, tasked with providing PPE. A year ago, the idea of stockpiling PPE “just in case” would have had you laughed out of the room in times of budget restraint. Today, not having done so is costing lives.

If there is anybody to blame, it’s all of us who have conspired to let those in charge make these decisions, and to allow the short term performance of the economy to triumph over our long term wellbeing.

Think about it for a moment – there is a whole queue of other events waiting for us. We know they are there, but cannot plan for them – we can only prepare – make the best guesses we can, and ensure the things that matter – doctors, nurses, those who run our infrastructure, and others who are not “economically efficient” have the spare capacity that is needed when they are called on to save us from ourselves.

Of course it’s hugely inefficient. But so is inconvenience, and what is causes.

Inefficiency is our friend,

We can learn to love it. Preparing for uncertainty means cutting ourselves, and our businesses, a little slack. Being deliberately inefficient.

  • Time to think the unthinkable.
  • Doing things because you can, not because they make a return.
  • Time to enjoy “being” as well as a slave to “doing”.
  • Looking after ourselves – ensuring we have the capacity to handle shocks, physically and mentally.
  • Accepting that whilst we could earn more, maybe we don’t really need more.
  • Understanding that the idea of a minimum wage is a license to exploit, and that a CEO being paid 300 times the average employee, whilst taking no personal risk, is an obscenity.
  • See people for who they are capable of becoming, not where they are right now.

When I lived in Switzerland, all of us had a significant shelter in the basement, which we were required to keep stocked with a month’s worth of essentials. We used to laugh about it, and at how inefficient it was when building. Maybe not so much.

Switzerland has embraced uncertainty by building it into their culture.

We can do the same.

  • Credit cards are for emergencies – nor everyday living. The clue is in the name.
  • Banks do not lend because they like you. Loans are high risk exercises in times of uncertainty.
  • Working long hours doing something you don’t really like, in order to be able to afford two weeks a year getting away from it is not building resilience.
  • Being wrong is not a sin, it’s a price paid by those who are trying and taking personal risk.

Humanity is chronically inefficient. It’s where the art, creativity, music, laughter, love and joy come from. Revel in it.

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