Betty White, Plato, and the Titanic

There is a natural tendency for any congregation of human beings to become insular. This is just as true for organizations and departments within those organizations as it is for states, regions, countries, religions, political groups, and on and on.

Human beings are herd animals; we always have been. We don't have thick hides, claws, or fangs. We're not particularly fast on foot or when swimming. A 3-year-old chimpanzee can literally tear our arms out of their sockets. What we do have is each other, and the need to communicate and defend each other led to big brains, an amazing aptitude for pattern recognition and, eventually, fully-formed language.

But even now, there are issues regarding the formation of effective new ideas in the face of emerging needs, threats, and appropriate responses to both. There is nothing new about this. In fact, Plato spelled the whole thing out in something called The Allegory of the Cave.

In Plato's story, a man wanders into a cave in which are imprisoned a group of people. These people are chained facing the cave wall, and have been since birth. Because of the chains, they are unable even to turn their heads. In the center of the cave, behind the prisoners, a large fire burns. As people, objects, and people carrying objects pass between the fire and the cave wall, they cast shadows on the wall that the prisoners can see. The prisoners attempt to build an explanation of the entire world, its contents, and its processes based on these distorted shadows.

The man who wanders into the cave, of course, has a lifetime of experience other than being chained to a cave wall, plus the added benefit of being able to see and accurately interpret everything he sees. From an organizational perspective, this is why it is so important to frequently engage outside consultants and to hire new employees from outside your industry. You and everyone in your organization that has been there for any length of time already see things with a very fixed lens.

New eyes are clear eyes.

The natural tendency, of course, when you hear the ideas of these new folks is to say, "That won't work, and here's why: You don't really understand our business." Those words are often the epitaph of the organization. You can only see things one way, because you are chained to the wall of your experience, and cannot see things objectively or from the outside.

Another issue regarding our hard-wired response to threats is that nature plays the odds.

In any group of people facing a mortal danger, a certain percentage will do one of the following:
  • Act instantly based on recent information (10% - 15%)
  • Panic and go crazy (15%)
  • Stand around and do nothing (everyone else)

From a survival of the species perspective, this is a good strategy. Two of the answers will likely always be wrong, but at least one will probably be right. From nature's perspective, having enough members of a species survive to reproduce is a win. (The fact that so many people who survive a disaster tend to feel very close to each other afterward is nature's next step in this process.)

The problem is, from an organizational perspective, it is very easy for the third group to delay action until any decision no longer matters.

A good example is the town that I grew up in. When a mall opened up outside of the city limits, the downtown 
merchants debated for years about how to address this competition, talking the city into bringing in expensive consultant after expensive consultant with plan after plan until all of their stores closed for want of customers. What was once the center of commerce became a ghost town.

Another excellent example is the newspaper industry. Every month or so a journalist writes a new story that explains how newspapers can save themselves from extinction. The problem is, for everyone outside the newspaper industry and its dependents (such as the wire services), newspapers died a long time ago. As the new NPR CEO once said, "No one under 30 has ever read a newspaper. And they never will".

Newspapers are Abe Vigoda. They are not Betty White.

To avoid this trap, obsessively collect and listen to your metrics. Intelligence gather from your competitors and those in industries that are outside of your own, but who serve a similar Customer, or have similar business models.

Standing still while your ship sinks guarantees that you and everyone around you drowns. It is still going to sink, and an irrational belief that your ship will not sink because it never has and so it can't will not help you any more than it did the captain of the Titanic.

To survive, you must constantly adopt, adapt, and improve based on changing conditions. Action must be swift, decisive, and stem-to-stern.

Just ask T. Rex.

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