Here’s a joke I’ve enjoyed telling since I first heard it:
A data analyst is on board a passenger jet. The captain’s voice announced over the radio “We have lost an engine, but there’s no need to worry, we can fly on three engines, it will just take us an hour longer to reach our destination.
A while later, the radio crackles again: “This is your captain speaking, we have lost another engine – but we’re in no danger. Our journey will take an extra two hours though.”
Not long after, the captain is on the radio again: “We’re down to one engine, we can make it safely, but we’re going to be landing three hours late.”
“I hope we don’t lose the last engine,” says the analyst, “We’ll be up here forever.”
Here’s a quote that I’ve long enjoyed:
“Clouds are not spheres. Mountains are not cones. Lightning does not travel in a straight line”
– James Gleick, author of Chaos: Making a New Science
Here’s a story that I’ve found interesting:
Harry Markopolos knew early that Bernie Madoff was running a huge scam, but the SEC and others didn’t pay any attention to his repeated materials he sent them concerning how obvious it should have been that Madoff’s returns were built on nothing more than someone typing a number into a spreadsheet. From a 60 Minutes interview on the subject:
Asked how long it took him to figure out something was wrong, Markopolos said, “It took me five minutes to know that it was a fraud. It took me another almost four hours of mathematical modeling to prove that it was a fraud. “
It was the performance line that Markopolos said caught his attention. “As we know, markets go up and down, and his only went up. He had very few down months. Only four percent of the months were down months. And that would be equivalent to a baseball player in the major leagues batting .960 for a year. Clearly impossible. You would suspect cheating immediately.”
“Maybe he was just good,” Kroft remarked.
“No one’s that good,” Markopolos said.
You knew to laugh at the data analyst and his linear blindness. You knew Glieck’s metaphor of the natural world is true outside of nature. And you knew that Mr. Markopolos shouldn’t have been so unique in noticing the weird consistency in Madoff’s returns.
You know all this because you logically accept that while your business or personal life might not be completely random – we exert control on our outcomes – our path forward will not be linear.
This can be viewed as motivation. There is no law that says your business cannot increase by 200% in two years, just as there is no assurance that your current customers will still be spending money with you in two years.
To what extent, when you peer into your business future, are you simply extrapolating the path you’re on in a linear fashion? If you’re doing this, I know two things:
1. You’re human
2. You’re probably wrong
Additional reading: Here’s a thought about how to anticipate change, another post about anticipating/planning, and here’s my take on Madoff and how two movies can teach us something about human weakness.